DEFENDING AMERICA
Sept. 17,1996

A FEW GOOD COVERUPS?

BY DAVID EVANS

As he strolled away for some solo practice shooting at sunset, Laretta Wager, the on-duty manager that day at the Flatwoods Gun Club, a private shooting range near the huge Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., remembers 2nd Lt. Kirk Vanderbur assuring her that he would leave the firing line picked clean of any spent shells littering the area.

Does this sound like the farewell concern of a man about to commit suicide? Yet, if the investigating officer's report is to be believed, some-time that evening Lt. Vanderbur shot himself in the stomach with his 12-gauge shotgun and then crawled in agony some 10 feet to pick up his 22-caliber rifle and finish the job with a single bullet through the middle of his forehead.

A blood-spattered paper bag he had been using to collect spent shell casings was found near Lt. Vanderbur's body.

When her son did not call home that Sunday in February 1992, as was his habit, his mother, Lois, knew instantly something was wrong. Since then, she has found plenty wrong with the attitude of Marine Corps officials.

"They say it's 'semper fidelis' (always faithful), but the real motto seems to be 'cover and protect,"' she said in a recent interview.

The Corps' lack of diligence, if not plain curiosity, is nothing short of astounding. Fingerprints were not taken of the weapons or of Lt. Vanderbur's Isuzu Rodeo truck parked at the death scene. Two spent shell cases from the rifle were found, but there was only one 22-caliber entry wound in his body.

A Marine officer was part owner of the gun club and was at the facility with his young son, who spotted the Isuzu shortly after waking up in the morning, yet this major was not interviewed.

For his part, Lt. Vanderbur had paid $3,000 in cash to obtain a coveted MP-5 assault rifle, an illegal deal in which this more senior Marine officer may have been involved. Had the lieutenant threatened to blow the whistle on the major if he didn't receive his new gun? Indeed, a powder burn on Lt. Vanderbur's forearm suggests that he was trying to shield himself from being shot in the course of an argument.

No wonder Lois Vanderbur is cynical.

Dr. John Sabow is just as unconvinced about the suicide of his brother, Col. James Sabow, who was found dead in the back yard of his quarters at the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, Calif., on the morning of Jan. 22,1991.

Five days earlier, Col. Sabow had been informed he was under investigation for using military aircraft for personal reasons, such as carrying stereo speakers to his son in college.

Col. Sabow is asserted to have placed the muzzle of his 12-gauge shotgun in his mouth and fired. His fingerprints were not on the weapon. Nor was there an exit wound. Instead of being hurled backward by the force of the blast, Col. Sabow's body was found slumped forward.

The autopsy revealed a severe blow behind the colonel's right ear, which caved in the skull rather than blowing it out. Blood found in Col. Sabow's lungs suggested that he had struggled to breathe after receiving an injury that did not kill him instantly.

"It took me a year to receive the autopsy and fingerprint reports," Dr. Sabow said. "Now I know why. The evidence suggests murder."

At a Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee hearing last week, Dr. Sabow and other aggrieved relatives of declared suicides - not just those in the Marine Corps - said they are tired of being patronized and deceived by military officials.

To be sure, serious crimes are a blight on the military, while suicide is a stigma of its own. How, then, to balance the needs of the military and the family?

Try this approach to assure a greater measure of accountability: Congress could mandate that in every death investigation a military lawyer will be appointed to represent the interests of the deceased in the process by which the cause of death is determined. The deceased would have knowledgeable defenders, and if the brass oppose such a change, family members like Lois Vanderbur will know for sure what they already suspect, that the overarching agenda is to "cover and protect" rather than to "uncover and correct."

David Evans is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel.