Last Monday, June 4, the separation board to consider my case was convened in Kansas City, Missouri at the Marine Corps Mobilization Command (MOBCOM). It had been a long weekend since leaving Union Station at ten to six (ten minutes early) on Friday. We were supposed to get into the Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio in time to get at least a few hours of sleep, but instead got there just in time to have breakfast and check our email.
It was there that we got to meet Tim and Yvette Coil. Tim is a conscientious objector from the Army from the First Gulf War era. He was also facing legal proceedings that coming week, with a trial on Tuesday for one count of “disturbing the peace” in a library for holding up note cards in a very clever counter-recruiting action. We also picked up Leonard Shelton, a former Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant and veteran of the First Gulf War. He would join us on the bus all the way to Kansas City and back to Indianapolis.
Saturday night we were supposed to get in to Kansas City around midnight, but instead, at midnight we were in St Louis meeting Cloy Richards. He was too excited to have his driver’s license back and a car to drive, so he drove separately. It was a good thing too, because the next morning, him and Liam and I were scheduled to be on Good Morning America by remote feed. The producers had booked a hotel for us for that night, but we had to be outside by 5:15am. It was two o’clock, and we were still closer to St. Louis than Kansas City. So we got in Cloy’s car and took off. We were met by Phil Rhoades, who showed us where the VFW post was, and gave me pictures of MOBCOM from his recon mission the day before.
We got to the hotel at four, with just enough time to “shit, shower, and shave” and get something to eat. A car was waiting for us at 5:15 and we got to the studio, got mic’ed up, and did our thing. It was my first remote feed, and it is pretty awkward. I was much more comfortable speaking with Paula Zahn face to face, but maybe that’s because she’s so pretty. Actually, she’s better looking on TV than in real life. You can see the video of us on Good Morning America here.
Then it was back to the hotel to check email and finish our breakfast. I had something ridiculous like two hundred emails. So if you sent me one, and it’s at the bottom of that pile, don’t worry, I will respond eventually. That was also about the time I started receiving some serious hate mail, so you can look forward to a post about that soon. We took Cloy’s car to the campground where everyone else was catching up on sleep at the bus.
That afternoon was the rally in Kansas City. As soon as I got off the bus, I was mobbed by reporters. It was very odd to speak to them instead of the real people who had come to support me first. I felt it was the worst speech I had ever given since I was so exhausted and hadn’t prepared anything, but everyone said it was well received.
Then we had dinner at a nearby church and then did a radio interview for a local radio station in studio. Then it was back on the bus and back to the campground. Waiting for us were my old friend Aaron Hughes, who I met at the first OFC and Vince, a fellow Marine vet who I met at the second OFC. It meant a lot to have them there for support and to testify, as they had driven all the way down from Chicago, not to mention the fact that they’re all around great guys.
The hearing was set to begin at 0800, so I called for reveille to go at 0530 to be on the road at 0615, pick up my attorneys at the hotel at 0630 and get to MOBCOM at 0700. We got on the bus at 0615, but of course it took a while longer to get “on the road.” At that point I wasn’t paying attention anyway because I was already doing a radio interview. When we got to MOBCOM, we parked the bus in the designated parking lot across the street. There was heightened security from the Marines, as well as a few cops.
After making a couple statements to the press there, I crossed the street with my attorneys, Mike Lebowitz and Kevin Zeese. We were greeted by a Gunnery Sergeant who said that he would be our liaison for the day. We shook hands and I went to shake the hand of one Sergeant ######, who I had worked with in the 3rd CAG, but he refused. It was quite a shock.
We were escorted into the defense room, and that was where I met the JAG for the first time. I was impressed with Lieutenant Melaragno, despite what I had heard from Mike the week before. Apparently, Mike’s opinion of him had also improved during their prep time the day before and they had decided that Melaragno would make the opening statement. On Friday, we were told that in order to preserve my right to privacy, the press would not be allowed in the hearing. Mike immediately filed a motion to waive that right, and so they agreed to allow six reporters in the room, but no recording devices. Of course the proceedings were taped, and they said that we would eventually get a copy. Hopefully, I will soon have a chance to post some of the choice excerpts.
The hearing began as expected and started with the normal procedures including the submitting of evidence. When Melaragno submitted the evidence for the defense, or technically, “the respondent,” the prosecutor, or technically, “the recorder,” objected to three of the cases submitted as precedent. We adjourned while the board called their legal advisor. Mike pointed out to me that he selected the wrong cases to object to, because the strongest one (and least immediately relevant) was the Supreme Court Case. I pointed out that the only two combat veterans in the room were my “civilian attorney” and myself. Mike served in Iraq for ten months with a Pathfinder unit, and probably saw more combat than I did. The board consisted of a Lieutenant Colonel, a Major, and a Warrant Officer, all in their “Service Charlies” with ribbons, and none of them was wearing a Combat Action Ribbon (CAR). The Recorder, Captain Jeremy Sibert, is actually a US Attorney in the DOJ’s West Texas office. He was also, unsurprisingly, without a CAR.
After a while we were called back in and Sibert and Melaragno gave their opening statements. I was fairly impressed with Melaragno, and even felt comfortable with him representing me. The Recorder called his first witness, Major Whyte, the investigating officer in my case. Following the good cop bad cop model, Mike grilled him and got him to admit his bias in the case and underscored the point that he had repeatedly referred to IVAW as the opposition. He also discussed the proposal in his investigation report to use the time of reserve officers to seek out “misinformation” being distributed by “the opposition,” that “uses the media” to spread this “misinformation.” He also recommended that they take appropriate steps to combat this; or in other words, turn the Marine Corps into a propaganda machine.
That was the only witness for the prosecution. We called Staff Sergeant Tassi McKee of the US Air Force. As soon as she was sworn in, Sibert asked her what the basis of her testimony was and what organizations she belonged to. As soon as she said she was associated with the Appeal for Redress and a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, he demanded that she be read her rights, the implication being that it is somehow criminal to be a member of our fine organization. When she said she was active duty Air Force but could not disclose her duty station for security reasons, Sibert asked that the press leave the room. She told everyone where she worked, and the board was satisfied, but Sibert still insisted that she be read her rights. So again, we adjourned for the board to call their legal advisor.
It was a little after noon and I had told the press that I would make a statement, so before going across the street to get some lunch from the bus, I made a brief off the cuff statement and took questions. Then I went across the street to the bus and my supporters, most of whom were veterans wearing some part of their combat uniforms to show solidarity. I also had the pleasure of finally meeting Thomas Young. I spoke briefly about what had transpired so far and excused myself to grab something to eat before going back in. Former Army Colonel Anne Wright spoke and said something really cool: “To give these Marines anything less than an honorable discharge for their service is ridiculous. We know they served honorably, and if anything, what they deserve now is a super-honorable discharge!”
I met with Tassi in the witness room and she was very well composed and determined to testify. She had been involved with Operation First Casualty distributing fliers and helping out with logistics. She testified that we had made it clear that what we were doing was street theater, and that we were aware of the uniform regulations in question, which was why it was determined that it would be inappropriate for her to appear in uniform. She was well composed the whole time, even through the biting, but inane cross-examination by Sibert. She was never read her rights.
Then it was my turn, and just as Mike had promised, he asked the hard questions. He even grilled me on my appearance, pointing out that I showed up in a t-shirt and jeans and with a beard, and asked how that jived with being a good Marine and taking the Marine Corps values to heart. I explained that I was asserting my status as a civilian and that I trusted the board to make the right decision regardless of my appearance. I have always been too trusting.
Captain Sibert asked some hard questions too. He tried his best to find the contradictions in my values statements, but most of them began with either, “I don’t understand,” “I’m confused,” or “Can you explain?” It was particularly patronizing and offensive. Aside from a number of choice answers, which I may report on when I listen to the tapes, I remember saying at one point, “I can’t explain why you’re confused.” And then after answering one of his questions that began with, “I can’t understand how you can say this and then say that,” about my values, I concluded with, “And frankly, if you can’t understand that, I don’t think you should be here.” It had its satisfying moments, but all in all, it was a gut-wrenching experience.
The panel asked me a few questions that were simple “get to know you” questions, and in that context, the Warrant Officer asked me if I had voted in the last election. This was widely reported. Then the Major told me about other panels he has been on and how Marines often expressed remorse in making their case and asked me if I regretted any of my actions, particularly the disrespect. I told him I had no regrets, and I was not contesting the fact that I was disrespectful. I had fully intended to be disrespectful and there are times when it is entirely appropriate.
We then heard the closing argument from the recorder, and then from the respondent. Lieutenant Melaragno spoke on my behalf, and again, did a splendid job. Then the recorder got to close and make a final counter-statement. He talked about our chow-hall action in Ansbach and asked the board why I hadn’t done it at Camp Pendleton or Camp Lejeune. He suggested that the Marines would not have stood for it. While I admit, if I was addressing a group of Marines (which I may do in the future) it would be a different message, and a message from me, but the one in Ansbach was A LETTER FROM THE PEOPLE OF ANSBACH! It was as if he hadn’t even read it. It was then that I wanted to exercise my right to make a statement on my behalf, but Mike told me not to. I kind of regret not saying something along the lines of, “If the Captain here had even read the post in which I describe the action in question, he would have read that what I was reading was a letter from the people of Ansbach. That’s why I read it in Ansbach. It is clear that he has not thoroughly prepared for this case or done adequate research into the facts and is thus desperately trying to make new accusations to substantiate the ones at issue here. It is clear that the only person in this room who is advocating my separation is incompetent, and incapable of performing his duties.” Did I mention that he generally conducted himself like a douchebag?
We took a break then for the board to make their decision, but I have a feeling it was predetermined. After a short debriefing with the attorneys, I went across the street to wait with my supporters. As I walked out, they started singing the Marine Corps Hymn. “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli . . .” The first to greet me was former Gunny Leonard Shelton, who is now one of IVAW’s newest members. I started crying and had to sit down on the bus.
When they called us back in, the board announced their decision. They recommended that I be separated from the IRR with a General Discharge. They said in their decision that they agreed that the UCMJ should not be applied to the IRR, but said that under its standards, I had committed “serious offenses” and had compromised the effectiveness of the Marine Corps with my disrespectful statements. Or in other words, the officers who received the emails from me were so butt-hurt that they were incapable of performing their duties to their full capacity. As soon as they announced it and started to get up, all of the reporters starting asking whoever would listen, “What does that mean?”
We went back to our room and had a chat about the implications of the decision and what the next step would be. We spoke openly with Melaragno, telling him that we were going to make the most of this opportunity to keep fighting, and I thanked him for going out of his way to do a truly excellent job with the case.
But the press was waiting and I went back outside to make a statement. The one quote that got picked up was, “I do not think it was in the Marine Corps spirit to take the easy road or to not take a stand. In the words of Dante, the hottest layers of hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis maintain their neutrality, and I think that's what happened here today.”
Then I went across the street and told everyone what had happened and how we were going to keep fighting. I told them that I was disappointed in the lack of leadership displayed and the failure of the Marine officers on the board to make a principled decision. “Or as my drill instructor said at boot camp, ‘You wanna play games, we’re going to play games!’”