When I was the Company Commander of an Engineer Company at Fort Benning, Georgia from January 1972 to March 1973, I had several drug pushers and other malcontents. Once I was able to get rid of the drug pushers through administrative actions, everything fell into place. The rest of the troops were good people who did their jobs, and I felt very comfortable with them and they with me. We went months without an AWOL (absent without official leave), which was almost unheard of in those days.
Then one soldier who had gone AWOL twice from Headquarters Company was sent to me on a Rehabilitation Transfer. He went AWOL immediately. (Soldiers who were a problem were sometimes given a fresh start in a new Company. Once I tore up an Article 15 that had been sent by the previous commander, telling the soldier that he had a clean slate in this unit. That soldier was never a problem for me.)
Some months later another soldier went AWOL. This was a complete surprise. I called in the Platoon Leader, Platoon Sergeant, and Squad Leader. Everyone was baffled. This was on a Wednesday. Thursday afternoon, I received a call from a tire dealer in nearby Columbus, GA, who wanted to know about this soldier who wanted to purchase some tires on credit.
I told him that this was a very good soldier who for some reason was AWOL at this moment. A few minutes later, the soldier called in to me. I told him he was AWOL, that he had had no authority to be absent. He said he would be right in. But he didn’t come in that afternoon, or on Friday. Sometime over the weekend he returned, and reported for duty Monday morning.
I signed the Morning Report for Wednesday (the report that showed how many people were present for duty and what changes happened since the previous report). I went on leave myself over the weekend, and the report for the next Monday was signed by the Company Executive Officer (XO).
When I came back, I offered the AWOL soldier an Article 15. This is non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I planned to give him a suspended bust. That is, he would be reduced in grade from a Specialist 4 to a Private First Class. In military grade, this would be E-4 to E-3. But, this reduction in grade would not take effect at all if he stayed out of trouble for the next two months, and then the paperwork would be shredded, with no record of the action.
He refused. He wanted a Court Martial. So I went to the Judge General’s (JAG) Office and arranged for a Summary Court Martial, the lowest form of court martial.
When the day came, my driver took me to the courthouse at Fort Benning, armed with extract copies of the Morning Reports for that Wednesday and following Monday. The Company Clerk had “extracted” the pertinent information from those records, indicating departure and return from AWOL, and showed that I had signed both. My signature verified that they were correct.
I sat in some room with JAG officers who had prepared the case, and with my driver, waiting for my turn to testify. After a few minutes, I realized that the second extract copy was wrong. The XO had signed the second one, not me. I told one of the JAG officers. Soon he came back saying that the judge wanted the whole Morning Report Book. So I sent the driver back the ten miles to our Company area to get it. Then a man in civilian clothes, jeans and plaid shirt, came in and lambasted me, saying if I had paid attention to what I was doing, there wouldn’t have been this big delay.
Everybody else was in uniform. I said to this man, “What are you, a wise guy, trying to rub it in. Why don’t you keep your big mouth shut?” The man walked out without another word.
The driver returned with the book. The trial resumed. Eventually I was called. I walked into the courtroom, saw several people in the audience, the witness on the stand, the prosecutor and the defense attorney. Then I saw the person who had been in civilian clothes. Now he had on a robe, because he was the judge!
I was speechless at first, but recovered in time to testify. The judge was very cool, asking why this was not an Article 15 proceeding. I explained that I had offered the soldier one on several occasions, including that very morning, but he wanted a Court Martial.
The man was convicted, he went downhill from there, and was eventually released with a General Discharge under less than honorable conditions some months
after I left Company Command. I never could find out why he went AWOL in the first place, or why he didn’t come in immediately when he said he would.