Saturday, January 12, 2013

'Our military is broken' - retired Command Sgt. Major

A family member mourns one of 13 murder victims at a memorial service
Army unable to solve social ills

- Second in a series -

Ft. Hood - When he got his chance to retire and re-enter the civilian world after 31 years in uniform, the Command Sergeant Major walked away.

Sitting at a desk in a cramped office in a trailer by the freeway, he fields phone calls from soldiers who have paid a bond fee and are looking to postpone their day in a civilian court.

“Our military is broken,” he says in a matter of fact tone, his voice as level as his gaze out the window, into a bleak world where, he says, the Army's command structure turns an indifferent or blind eye to the circumstances of multiple stop-loss deployments of men and women who have answered the call as many as five times, caught the plane, and walked into hell.

On their return, the conditions they walked into when they returned to the sprawling Army base aren't much different.

The caller he just finished talking to had tried in multiple ways – multiple times – to get out of jail for zero bucks. It didn't work.

The Sergeant Major didn't budge. “You haven't been calling in, man.”

The truth is, he can't stay out of jail, and it's doubtful he will get out today because he hasn't been checking in on court days. Police officers who arrested him on another minor offense discovered he was wanted for failure to appear. He can't make bail unless he meets his obligations to the bondsman.

In fact, the truth is even more grim than that. His body is the property of the surety, a big insurance company that – quite literally – owns the person who absconds on a promise to appear as a chattel, a piece of property with no civil rights, no real humanity.

The offenses are often very minor – misdemeanor offenses punishable by only short stretches behind bars, or probated, suspended sentences with terms and conditions of finishing an education, keeping a job, making restitution, paying child support.

None of that is the concern of the bondsman. He acts as an agent for a financial institution that owns people and has the perfect right to go get them and return them if they fail to appear in court, or even to check in on time.

He's a bounty hunter. Until the Texas Legislature joined many other states to correct the problem, most bounty hunters were convicted felons. Members of the defense bar started to make an issue of the matter when cross examining bond agents and law enforcement officers.

Bond agents – or bounty hunters - must now be licensed private investigators, and the Sergeant Major is just that. He is licensed by the State of Texas to do what he does.

His world is as bleak as that of the men and women he hunts. Just outside the gates of Ft. Hood are methamphetamine dealers who are only too willing to shoot to kill for the money in a man's pockets.

“It's a business,” he says, choosing, then biting off his words with care. “There's no money in doing people favors, getting them out of jail for free – on a handshake.” He shrugs. “You'll never see them again.”

In fact, most businesses in downtown Killeen are carried on in support of that pursuit, the goal of getting out of this world and living it up between return trips to the utter hell of a world where a sudden trip to eternity awaits both the quick - and the dead.

There are pawn shops where the trophies of a life lived in the fast lane are on display for buyers of broken dreams – the tools, musical instruments, saddles and tack, optical devices, and – yes, the guns.

Rifles for hunting deer, shotguns for shooting birds, shotguns for shooting home invaders, pistols for self-protection, carbine style assault rifles that differ from their military versions in only the slightest of ways - that of select fire between semiautomatic and fully automatic.

The Sergeant Major fields another couple of calls, turns to look across his desk, and delivers the most chilling words of all.

“Most of these people are arrested for the most minor offenses. They never get out of trouble. They spend the rest of their lives living with the utter hopelessness of a criminal class of people...They are never truly free – ever – again.”

He says he tries to operate in a way he would like to experience if he were the hunted one. “I try to nurture my clients, treat them with respect.” His voice trails off.

The implications are clear. He offers a service, no different from medical care, transportation, housing, or any other form of insurance. It's just that this type of insurance coverage differs from life and casualty coverage. In this deal, it's a gamble that you will return to face the music in court. If you lose, you lose ownership of your body if you don't do the right thing.

He shrugs again, talks about a Company First Sergeant who is in a world of hurt after 16 years on active duty.

The man woke up in his bedroom confronted by police officers who were there to arrest him for domestic violence causing physical harm. The top reacted naturally, in a way that went badly for his case. He lashed out in self defense.

His reflex action guaranteed a trip to jail for a very serious felony offense, assaulting a police officer.

His bail? Two hundred thousand dollars. His bond fee? Eight thousand dollars. His victim – his wife – arranged for his release along with a co-signer. “They paid with a couple of credit cards.” There is pain. You can hear it in his voice, see it in his eyes.

His future? A loss of career at the least, a life that will never be the same because he chose to get drunk.

“And he never drinks. Ever...That's not the military I grew up in during the eighties and nineties. In that Army, they would have closed ranks around that Top; they would have put their arms around him and protected him.”

You can hear the shame in his tone of voice.

Then there was his first experience with a wanted man. The kid returned from Iraq missing part of a foot, a most basic injury to a foot soldier, an infantryman, something he lost in an IED attack on a desert highway. He needed light duty, so he was assigned to drive the commanding general.

“He didn't get what he needed. He was living a life in pain.” When the arrest came, it was for drunken behavior and multiple counts of domestic violence.

He fled, returned to his home on the eastern seaboard. When the skip tracers found him, the Sergeant Major talked him into coming back to the Fort. The bonding company owned the soldier's body, and he surrendered that body.

What happened? “Drugs.”

It's that simple. It's that bluff.

“Drugs.” He repeats himself.

“They give them drugs like Trazadone to try to mask the effects of what they have been living with. It just doesn't work. When they come home, they are not the same person. Not even close. How could they be?”

He mentions Dr. Abu Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who twisted off and killed 13, wounding many more at the Soldier Readiness Center on post. 

"The command structure knew all about him. They just didn't want to get involved. They just ignored the problem."

The offenses? 

“Most of the people start off as misdemeanor offenders. They get in trouble, and they never get out. That jail, that penitentiary, it belongs to a corporation. They make money for every day an offender spends locked up in there. You'll never get out...”

What does he see when he looks into the future?


Where? “Israel. No question.”

The entire United States has been declared a war zone by a Congress acting to pass the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012.

His opinion?

He is silent. He looks away. The trauma of war speaks for itself.

There is a place dedicated to recovery from that condition, the traumatic stress of serving in war. A huge percentage of the women who served their country, and a surprising number of men, lost their claim to humanity and the possession of their own bodies at the hands of a rapist.

The assault may have been masquerading as a personal incompatibility, an inability to get along, a misunderstanding on a hot and heavy date, or a simple case of a domestic spat, but the fact remains. There was a physical, sexual assault, and it wasn't really about sex. It was about power relations. Abuse. The struggle to control another person's body.

One in three females are raped while on active duty. Of those who reported their sexual assault, 37 percent were raped at least twice; 14 percent were gang-raped.

“A woman who signs up to protect her country is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire,” according to former California Democratic Representative Jane Harman in Congressional testimony.

NEXT: A visit to the VA Domiciliary

First in the series:

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