The highlight, or lowlight, of my illustrious military career was my court martial, depending on how you view these things. My lovely supermodel wife thinks it’s deplorable. I think it’s kind of epic. It was something that only could’ve occurred in the military.
It happened way back when the Army wanted me to drive a truck. I delivered supplies to the four dental clinics on Fort Sill. It was a piece of cake job.
I drove to the motor pool in the morning, past the barracks in which I used to reside, and picked up my truck. Okay, it was actually a two seat panel van. Then I went to eat breakfast at the cafeteria at Reynolds Army Hospital. I drove to the warehouse and loaded up on whatever had been delivered, then went to the base laundry to pick up clean linen. The rest of the day was deliveries, lunch, and more deliveries. I dropped off all the soiled linens I had collected from all the clinics at the base laundry, and that was my day.
There was an unspoken rule between me and the staff of Dental Headquarters. When my deliveries were done, so was I. It made no difference what time it was. The company clerk, James Toney, who was technically the first link in the chain of my command, had approved this detail with me.
It was unprecedented in the annals of history at Dental Headquarters, but I was incredibly efficient, and James Toney liked me. My first sergeant knew about it. My second lieutenant executive officer knew about it. They were okay with it, off the record. My commanding officer didn’t know about it, but he wouldn’t have approved it if he had known, on or off the record. He didn’t approve of me.
Colonel Konze knew who I was. I had been summoned to his office more than once so he could read me the riot act about my attitude and complete lack of military bearing. For example, one day I made all of my deliveries wearing a set of Mickey Mouse ears.
I had so much fun that day…
The day in question was a Friday. The time was 2:00 PM. Technically, I was supposed to be on the clock for the US Army until 4:00 PM. I had completed all my appointed rounds, and stopped at Headquarters to let everyone know I was done for the day. Have a good weekend. See you Monday. I went out to the loading dock where my van was parked.
It wouldn’t start. The starter was shot.
I went back inside and informed the company clerk. He told me to tell the first sergeant. I walked across the hall. First Sergeant Garcia and Second Lieutenant Steffler shared an office. I told them about the van.
“The van won’t start, the starter’s shot. We need to call the motor pool. They’re going to have to send a tow truck.”
“Okay. I’ll take care of it.” Lieutenant Steffler said.
My duties, as I understood them, had been fulfilled. So, I went home.
That was the series of events that occurred. And for that, I would eventually end up in front of a military court of law.
I was living off base at the time. I had rented a house with two of my Army buddies, one of whom was Sergeant Raoul Sanchez–the guy that had transformed into Satan on our epic trip to Texas. At the time this happened, that trip was still way off in the future. And there was another adventure with Raoul and his wife lurking out there in the future, waiting to devour me…
I changed into my civilian clothes. I had most likely popped open a beer and was listening to music, when the phone rang. It was the company clerk, James Toney. He informed me the world had stopped spinning, and I needed to get back Headquarters, ASAP! He wasn’t a nurse or a doctor, so he couldn’t say STAT.
“What’s the problem?”
“The lieutenant’s pissed that you left!”
I talked to Toney for a few minutes. I didn’t see what the big deal was, but Toney was clear. I needed to get back to Headquarters immediately. So I immediately jumped in my car and drove back on base. In my civilian clothes. And marched into the XO’s office.
Lieutenant Steffler looked stunned when he saw me standing in his office. Maybe because I was wearing civilian clothes, but I’m not sure.
“Where the hell have you been? I’ve been looking for you for the last hour!”
“My deliveries were done. I went home.”
“You left your vehicle parked at the loading dock!”
“I told you it wouldn’t start. And you said you’d take care of it.”
Strict military protocol was rarely observed at Dental Headquarters. We mostly addressed each other my name, not by rank. We did say Sir, and stuff like that, when we had to.
“You abandoned your post, soldier!” Lieutenant Steffler screamed. His face had turned bright red.
“What?” I seriously could not believe what I was hearing. “Have you called the motor pool?”
“What? No! I’ve been too busy looking for you!”
“Well, why don’t you call them now. Sir.”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job, Rowen!” His face had turned even redder, if that were possible. “Go out to the loading dock, and wait there until someone from the motor pool arrives!”
I went out to the loading dock, and lit a cigarette. My buddy Raoul worked in the dental prosthetics lab making dentures at the Headquarters Clinic. He joined me on the loading dock. He lit a cigarette, and exhaled slowly.
“Let me give you a little advice, amigo. You’re going to be given an Article 15 for this…”
Raoul had been in the Army a lots longer than I had been, and he understood the convoluted way the military worked. There were two types of Articles 15: a company grade, and a field grade. Now, because our company commander was a colonel, I would be getting a field grade Article 15, and a field grade Article 15 was essentially the same, in terms of punishment, as being court martialed.
Raoul’s voice was almost mesmerizing that day. He had a Texas/Hispanic accent, and he matter of factly went through his outline as though he could see it unfolding in front of him. I didn’t know any of this crap, and that’s what I thought it was.
“So, when the colonel offers you an Article 15, you turn it down, and take the court martial, you understand?”
I remember looking at Raoul as if he had transformed into Satan. I couldn’t believe this ridiculous series of events would, or even could, result in me being court martialed. And I told him that.
“Yeah, well, amigo, you just remember what I said.”
Right about then, two old retired Army guys, who were now Civil Service employees, pulled up in an olive green military pick up truck. One of them got behind the wheel of my broken down van and turned the key.
“Yep, the starter’s shot. We’re gonna need a tow truck.”
* * * *
Somewhat unbelievably to me, everything played out exactly as Raoul had predicted. I was called into my commanding officer’s office the following Friday. He was going to authorize Article 15 proceedings. I had seventy-two hours to decide whether to accept it or not. If I declined, court martial proceedings would be initiated.
I spent the weekend verbalizing my disbelief to Raoul and getting drunk. On Monday, I returned to Colonel Konze’s office and informed him I wasn’t going to accept the Article 15. He looked at me like I had transformed into Satan.
“I think you’re making a big mistake, son.” he said, and signed my court martial papers. Because the Dental Service was attached to the Medical Service, my court martial would have to be approved by the MEDDAC Commander, Colonel Bishop.
I had one last chance to make an appeal to someone that would surely see the absurdity of all this.
“Don’t count on it.” Raoul said. He was convinced that our XO was tired of being a second lieutenant, and wanted to be a first lieutenant. In order achieve that, he had to prove to the Brass that he could fuck with the enlisted men, and that’s how all this bullshit got started.
* * * *
I waited outside the office of the MEDDAC Commander, Colonel Bishop. Interesting military factoid: the MEDDAC Company Commander was an enormous man, Captain Fatty. I can’t remember his real name. However, if good old Captain Tons of Fun had initiated my disciplinary action, it would’ve been a company grade Article 15, and according to Raoul, I could’ve accepted that as punishment.
I knew exactly what I was going to say to Colonel Bishop when he asked me what got happened. I walked into his office, and delivered a sharp salute.
“Ah, Specialist Rowen,” Colonel Bishop said as he took his seat. My paperwork was on his desk in front of him. Colonel Bishop didn’t even look up at me, nor did he ask for my side of the story. “I’ve heard all about you.” He signed the papers approving my court martial without so much as one word of explanation from me.
I was in an absolute state of shock. I couldn’t believe any of this was happening. All because my goddamn van wouldn’t start.
* * * *
I received a huge packet of paperwork prior to my court martial outlining the charges against me. At top of the first piece of paper it read:
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. MARK EDWARD ROWEN
That was, like, everyone in the entire country, including my Mom and Dad, and my brothers and sisters. Everyone. It amazes me to this day.
I was assigned an attorney at the JAG Office. Actually, I ended up with a defense team. I can’t remember how that happened, but it was another thing that occurred once every two hundred years. I was charged with ‘Willful Dereliction of Duty.’ My lawyers thought this was one of most egregious miscarriages of military justice they had ever seen, but they were also surprised by the charges.
“Willful Dereliction of Duty isn’t easy to prove. They should’ve charged you with Neglect…”
I credit the DENTAC Company Clerk, James Toney, for that. Neglect might be easy to prove, but the punishment is akin to a slap on the hand. You can go to prison for Willful Dereliction of Duty, and my commanding officers wanted to bust my balls. After my trial was over, and we could legally discuss it, Toney told me he had convinced Steffler to go big when charging me.
“I knew they’d have no problem convicting you of Neglect, but didn’t think they had enough to convict you for Dereliction of Duty. Lucky for you, Steffler and Konze hated you so much they fell for it. The only one that thought it was a bad idea was the First Sergeant.”
My defense team’s strategy was simple. There was no one to counter the prosecution’s claim about my state of mind when I abandoned my broken down vehicle at the loading dock, or to call into question the series of events that then transpired. So, they subpoenaed five dentists to refute the prosecution’s claim that I was a bad soldier.
All of my officer and a gentleman character witnesses were captains, and they all came from the same dental clinic, Dental Clinic #3, which was my personal favorite of all the clinics on Fort Sill. It had the greatest staff, and the cutest WAC’s. All five of them enthusiastically agreed to testify on my behalf. My defense team’s tactic would essentially shut down that clinic for at least half a day, which would impact productivity.
“Maybe they’ll think twice about doing this again.” my lead counsel said.
I had a choice between a trial with a jury of my peers, or a judge only. My defense team urged me to choose a judge only. I agreed with their suggestion. After all, they were the experts.
* * * *
My court martial was scheduled for early March of 1976. Two of my friends, Sergeants Rittenhouse and Beaver, were assigned to escort me to court. They had each been issued a set of handcuffs and a pistol. I was surprised to see that. My buddy Raoul had neglected to mention that small detail. I put my hands behind my back, and presented myself to my military escort as if I were being arrested.
“Oh, please, Mark,” Rittenhouse said. “I feel bad enough about having to do this shit already. You’re gonna make me cry.” What can I say? I was a popular guy.
We drove to the courthouse. The clerk of court, Mike Perkins, was also a friend of mine. We had run into each other a few times at parties. I didn’t know everyone on base, but I knew a lots of people. Mike would be dead in a few months, murdered by another friend of mine, Roy Bowman.
The trial was swift. The prosecution called several witnesses. James Toney, the company clerk. First Sergeant Garcia. Second Lieutenant Steffler. And couple of friends of mine that worked at the Headquarters Clinic. They had been subpoenaed to testify to the fact that Lt. Steffler had ordered them to search the clinic for me, and that I was nowhere to be found. Oh, and when I finally did appear, I was out of uniform.
The only glitch in the presentation of the prosecution’s overwhelming evidence against me was a remark from James Toney. He intentionally mentioned the unspoken rule that existed at Headquarters regarding the completion of my deliveries and the end of my day.
I don’t know how much that bit of evidence weighed when it came to determining the outcome of my trial, but it certainly didn’t hurt anything. And Toney took one helluva risk in saying it.
Thank you, James. That was a gutsy move, my friend.
The prosecution rested its case.
In my defense, Captain Howard Hardy was called. Howard was an interesting guy. He hated the Army. He hated most of his fellow dentists. He had a super hot looking girlfriend, and they liked hang out with me and my friends and get drunk and smoke pot.
Howard testified about my outstanding character, and what an excellent job I did delivering supplies to the dental clinics. And he was positive I would never willfully disobey an order, nor would I ever abandon my post or shirk my duties to the Army, or my country.
“Let me guess,” the judge said to my legal team. “You have four more witnesses that are basically going to repeat what Captain Hardy just said?”
“Yes, your honor.” my lead counsel replied.
“I don’t need to hear that.”
I was called to the stand to tell my side of the story. My attorney questioned me about the events, and about the unspoken rule that existed at Headquarters concerning my deliveries and the end of my day. The prosecution cross examined me, and that was it. The defense rested its case. My trial lasted maybe forty minutes. The judge retired to his chambers to review the evidence.
And he stayed there.
It was a dreary, cloudy day. A fine drizzle of rain was falling. I walked over to a window to gaze upon the grayness of the day, thinking that it perfectly mirrored the way I felt inside.
“Hey,” a soft voice whispered near my left ear. I turned to look toward the voice. It was my soon to be murdered buddy, Mike Perkins. “Just so you know, this judge is usually really fast. The longer he takes to make a decision, the better it is for you.”
Let him stay there all day! I thought. Roughly half an hour later, the court was called to order, the judge took his seat. I stood at attention while he announced his decision.
“Specialist Fourth Class Mark Edward Rowen, you have been charged with Willful Dereliction of Duty, which in my opinion, is not an easy thing to prove. I’ve listened to the testimony, and evaluated the evidence presented, and based on that, I think you’re guilty of Neglect. However, you weren’t charged with that, therefore, I find you not guilty.”
The courtroom erupted. My officer and a gentleman character witnesses started cheering. Sgts. Rittenhouse and Beaver were jumping up and down. My friends who had been forced to testify against me, including James Toney, rushed over to me to congratulate me. Soon to be killed to death clerk of court, Mike Perkins, smiled in my direction, and softly applauded. Even Lieutenant Steffler came over and shook my hand.
“Well, congratulations, I guess.” he said.
“Well, thanks, I guess.” I replied.
* * * *
There was an aftermath to all my legal proceedings. I asked my commanding officer to transfer me to any other Army base, anywhere in the world. I didn’t care where I went, as long as I went somewhere.
Colonel Konze declined my request, but did transfer me out of Headquarters. I would never be assigned to drive another vehicle in service to the US Army, or my country. I would take x-rays for the remainder of my time in the Army. And travel to Texas on the weekends.
Second Lieutenant James Steffler would unsuccessfully try to court martial two of my Army buddies, Joe Parnell and Sonny Gonzalez. He lost both cases, and if there was ever a man in my company that deserved to be court martialed, it was Sonny Gonzalez. How Steffler fucked up that case is a mystery that will never be solved.
The Army decided that being an XO was clearly beyond James Steffler’s abilities. He was promoted to first lieutenant, and put in charge of making out schedules for the Fort Sill Intramural Softball League.
Colonel Konze retired from the Army, bitterly disappointed in the way the Army treated him. He was passed over for a promotion to general. I can’t remember all the details, but he had done something years earlier that some guy who was a General at the Pentagon had never forgotten, so The Konz didn’t get a star and said, Fuck it, and quit.
Everyone else lived more or less happily ever after, I guess. Except Mike Perkins. He would be brutally beaten to death with a tire iron by Roy Bowman. Roy thought Mike had snitched him out for being a drug dealer, which Roy was. I had bought a lots of drugs from Roy back then.
I guess Roy wouldn’t live happily ever after either. He would be sentenced to ten years in prison for killing Mike to death.
No one deserves to got dead the way Mike did. No one.