DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
May 23, 1995

WHILE JUSTICE SHIRKS, AN AMERICAN OFFICER STANDS TALL

On May 13, a court martial panel at Fort Drum, NY, unjustly threw the book at Capt. Lawrence P. Rockwood when it found him guilty of disobedience, disrespect and conduct unbecoming an officer. After 15 years of exemplary service, Rockwood, 36, was ordered cashiered from the Army.

The verdict should make every American shudder. The trial itself should make us all question the integrity of the U.S. military judicial system.

Rockwood's problems started last September in Haiti when, after concluding that his superiors were indifferent to human-rights violations in that country's prisons, he took it upon himself to inspect the national penitentiary in order to document the prison's subhuman conditions.

A few days before Rockwood forced his way into the prison, he told his boss, Lt. Col. Frank B. Bragg, that human-rights abuses were rampant there. Bragg ignored Rockwood's pleas to have the prison inspected, saying it was "not a priority."

After Rockwood's prison visit -- where he found conditions reminiscent of World War II Germany's concentration camps -- he told Bragg during a red-hot screaming match, "I am an American military officer, not a Nazi military officer." The Army considered Rockwood's heated words as "disrespect to a senior officer."

In 1946, during the Nuremberg war crimes trials, Nazi Gen. Alfred Jodl said, "There is no other course for a soldier but obedience." Jodl was executed, establishing a clear precedent that the plea "I was just following orders" is not valid justification for a soldier's criminal conduct.

Talk about a mock trial:

*A star prosecution witness, William H. Parks, was found on two occasions inside the jury deliberation room. When challenged for this improper conduct, a display of incredibly bad judgment on the part of this senior Pentagon lawman, he told the judge he had been just "socializing" over a cup of coffee with the jury and had not discussed the case. One visit to this "off-limits room" was bad enough; two set the tone for the entire legal proceeding.

*The five men on the jury were all Army officers under the command of Maj. Gen. David C. Meade, the general in Haiti who failed to inspect the prison for almost three months after Rockwood's unauthorized visit and the very guy who court-martialed him. Some of these panel members' efficiency reports -- the magic passport to promotion -- will be signed by Meade himself.

*Lt. Col. Karl Warner and Lt. Col. Richard Gordon, both Judge Advocate General officers on Gen. Meade's personal staff, flitted in and out of the courtroom in full view of the judge and panel. The judge allowed this behavior, and said their presence didn't intimidate the panel. Warner said under oath he was keeping Meade informed.

*Lt. Col. Gordon passed notes to the prosecutors after the judge refused to allow former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Rockwood's defense lawyer, to get notes from his legal assistants sitting in the galley.

*Pfc. Ronald Duncan, a legal beagle at Fort Drum, was a witness for the prosecution. He secretly recorded a speech Rockwood gave at St. Lawrence University. Later, this Army-paid spy buzzed in and out of the courtroom as a messenger for the prosecution. I'm sure it's a story he'll be proud to tell his kids.

*Throughout the marathon trial, which averaged 12 hours a day, the body language of Army Judge Lt. Col. John Newberry said it all. He slouched down in his chair, yawned as if bored out of his brain and constantly eyeballed the courtroom clock like a 10-year-old waiting for the school bell to ring. His attitude seemed to be, "Get on with it. I've got a golf game at noon."

A reporter told me outside the courtroom, after the verdict came in, "This was a kangaroo court." Kangaroo court I can't say, but for sure it wasn't the Simpson trial. Had it been, O.J. would have been out of the slammer by the time Parks slurped down his first cup of coffee.

Sad to say, the well-worn saw, "Military justice is to justice as military music is to music," is alive and well at Fort Drum. Rockwood, instead of getting a medal, was punished for rightly doing his duty.