The onion-skin transcript of my Army court martial is barely twelve pages long. Granted, in the annals of military justice my alleged infraction was not on par with, say, the Caine Mutiny. But neither was the charge — disobeying a lawful order — a trivial matter.
Considering that in the minds of some, it was the root cause of my assignment to Vietnam, the affair as recorded for posterity does seem kind of, in a word, thin. Still, there it is; on the pale blue Department of Defense, Form DD491 cover sheet: “Summarized Record of Trial by Special Court Martial, 13 July, 1970.” This was the case of the now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t necklace of beads worn by me, PFC Fred Abatemarco of the 13th PysOps Battalion, 2nd Psychological Operations Group, Fort Bragg, NC.
My father was virtually certain this Court Martial for wearing so-called love beads was the main reason—if not the sole one—I got sent to Vietnam with less than a year left in my Army enlistment. Mind you, it was somewhat unusual to send personnel to the war with less than the full 365 days tour of service available–but not unheard of. Mid-1970 was a weird period for the war. President Nixon was desperately trying to wind things down and bring troops home. Replacements were being made head for head, job for job, and not on the full regimental or brigade scale that was the norm through the early days of the war. If the Army through it needed one more 71Q20 Information Specialist, it may well have been a random selection that found me. Even if I’d have only about 10 months left to serve when I got there.
But you couldn’t convince my Dad of that. Indeed, that I was found not guilty—fully exonerated in today’s parlance—only fueled his certainty. If the Army couldn’t screw me one way, he felt, they found another way: an all expenses paid trip to the war in Southeast Asia. And in his mind, it would have been just punishment for my impudence. My dad leaned decidedly hawkish on the scale of war or peace in Vietnam. And when it came to “make love, not war” sympathies, he was most definitely what you’d call a straight arrow. “Beatnik bastards” was his often muttered term for war protestors. When hard hat construction workers set upon peace marchers in New York’s financial district right around the time of my travails, my dad was rooting for the attackers.
Maybe he was right about the cause and effect of my court martial. I have complete faith that I’ll never know one way or another if that’s what got me to Vietnam. I don’t really care now because it doesn’t really matter, and I didn’t care then because I was too headstrong and rebellious to have considered the consequences. I’m not a Libra for nothing. I sought justice.
The incident that triggered my legal military woes occurred at 735am on 23 April,1970, as I stood with the rest of my platoon for the daily morning inspection. On that warm spring day, in front of our modern brick barracks, Specialist E-7 Laurence Guay—the non-commissioned officer who was in charge of my platoon — made a special point of announcing that he would no longer tolerate “civilian trinkets with the duty uniform.”
Our roll call formations typically lasted all of about 15 minutes. Specialist Guay walked through the ranks checking for polished boots, missing buttons, tucked in fatigue shirts. You know, all those vital war-winning characteristics so important for a typewriter-wielding soldier. Typically, the fatigue-shirt collar button is undone, and the undergarment tee shirt exposed. That’s where Guay says he saw my multi-colored necklace of beads. “They were hanging about an inch below his neck,” he testified. Guay told the court he gave me a lawful order to remove the beads immediately. When he found out I was still wearing them later that morning, he marched me to see the “Old Man”—that’s Army-lifer speak for the officer in charge—and made a formal report that I had disobeyed his order.
What’s the deal with the beads, you wonder? They were simply one of the many ways I tried to retain some type of individuality amid all the mind numbing conformity of Army life. I wasn’t protesting the war. I simply was trying to hold onto some sense of my civilian self.
Th beads became something of a cottage industry for me during those mostly non-eventful days of permanent party status at Ft. Bragg, NC. On weekend trips to New York, I’d pop into head shops and funky clothing and accessories stores like Azuma, to stock up on the tiny plastic beads. Back at the barracks, in my off hours, I’d string them and sell them to the guys for a couple of bucks each as necklaces or bracelets. Sometimes, I’d even embroider them on their jeans in simple patterns, like a horoscope sign. That usually cost more.
So the fact that many many of my platoon mates were wearing beads around their necks and around their wrists, made me indignant that Specialist Guay had a bug up his ass about me in particular. I know that was true because one of my other pastimes was pulling pranks with my bunkmates designed to make him bonkers any chance we got.
Like the time we decided to set up an unofficial lending library in our barracks. One of the periodicals we offered was the “Daily World,” the official newspaper of the American Communist Party. Specialist Guay was one of those gung-ho, my country right or wrong, uber patriots whose world view didn’t extend past the stripes on his uniform sleeve. He was USA all the way, though born in fact, somewhere in Alberta, Canada. We threatened to bring down the wrath of our First Amendment, Freedom of the Press rights, if he dared mess with our library.
Then there was the time we brought a live tree into the barracks. A fairly young sapling had been run down in the parking lot by a soldier who had one too many at one of Fayetteville’s sleazy strip-joint bars off post. My buddies and I decided to “rescue” the toppled tree by “repotting” it in a full size trash pail. Filled with dirt, soil, and freshly watered, we hauled the trash-can tree inside and awaited Specialist Guay’s jaw-dropping reaction at the next day’s barracks inspection. Our botanical do-gooder story saved us from disciplinary action, but the tree had to go. Specialist Guay was starting to catch on he was being played.
It couldn’t be more obvious, in fact, than the time four of us decided to become blondes. We had just spent a very depressing weekend day off at the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina. Pretty girls and handsome guys—all with long flowing hair only made us feel more out of sorts than usual. No matter how flared were our bell bottom jeans, we could hardly mix in with the students with our close cropped buzz cuts. We returned to base lonely and dejected. But then Ed Ossa, the most imaginative of my mischievous Fort Bragg coterie had a brain storm: “If we can’t grow our hair, let’s dye it!” So at the Post PX, we picked up their entire inventory of a color treatment called “Summer Blonde,” and applied it every day. Within a week, we evolved into towheaded wonders. Specialist Guay staggered with disbelief.
So it was a real “Gotcha!” moment for Guay when he had me standing before my company commander, officially charged with violation of Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for allegedly not complying with Army Regulation 670-5 which specifies the proper Army uniform and insignias.
This didn’t have to be that big a deal. The Army typically deals with minor infractions against its rules with a procedure called “Article 15.” Essentially, you admit your guilt and get punished with a slap on the wrist ranging from extra duty, or loss of privileges, a small fine, to various combinations of the same. Sign the sheet, take your medicine, proceed with your life. No biggie.
But there were two very important reasons why I would in no way agree to an Article 15. First of all, as far as I was concerned, I had a perfect right to wear the beads—as much as any crucifix of Jesus, Star of David or fist of black power wearing devotee did to their amulets. And I didn’t see Specialist Guay calling down any of these “civilian trinkets.” Perhaps even more important, an Article 15 would more than likely restrict me to the base and that would be intolerable because most weekends, I went through very elaborate efforts to get home to New York to see Natalie.
I decided to stand up to the man at a court martial where I could defend myself. It was my right to do so, and my refusal to sign the Article 15 kicked the wheels of so-called military justice into neutral for the time being. Life at Ft. Bragg continued as normal. I did my job each day, had weekends off, and there were no further confrontations with Specialist Guay or any of my other superiors. I kept my love beads well out of sight during duty hours.
A few weeks later, I was summoned to see Major Kirkpatrick, a senior officer from a totally different unit. I relished the opportunity to leave my office for this appointment. It would give me a chance to “ghost”—basically fuck off—for the entire rest of the day. At Kirkpatrick’s office, however, I was confronted by yet another decision. “This is your summary Court Martial, the Major announced when I was seated in front of his desk. “Wha?,” I puzzled. “Your Summary Court Martial,” he repeated. The Major went on to explain that right then, right there in his office, mano et mano, the incident in question would be reviewed and adjudicated by him. He had Specialist Guay’s written statement, the charge sheet, and he would hear my side of the story. No witnesses, no jury, no defense counsel.
I demanded a full trial for my day in court. I had been working with an attorney from the Army’s Judge Advocate Group and felt certain I had a compelling case if I could get a chance to present it properly. The Major cautioned me: “You go before a full Special Court Martial the stakes get much, much higher. You face loss of rank, a dishonorable discharge, jail time—any or all of the above.”
He wasn’t going to scare me. At least, I wouldn’t let him think so. This was hardball.
This decision led—three months after the original incident—to a stuffy, humid conference room on a stifling mid summer day. There, Major Charles Humphries, a Vietnam combat veteran presided as my sole judge and jury. There was a prosecuting attorney and assistant, my two-lawyer defense team, witnesses for both sides. I, the accused, and Specialist Guay, the accuser. No spectators.
Major Humphries was unabashedly bored to tears by the three-hour proceedings. He chain smoked unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes, blowing smoke rings through the dirty window screen, leaning back in a squeaky desk chair, his feet propped up on the scarred painted wooden table that passed for the court bench.
I had been advised by my JAG defense attorney, Captain George W. Clarke, that my best strategy was to waive a full jury. Unlike the fantasy of civilian justice, a military jury would most certainly NOT consist of my peers. Instead, it would be a half dozen lieutenants and captains: “Junior grade officers whose greatest military career satisfaction right now would be teaching a rebellious draftee like you a lesson you won’t forget,” advised my attorney. Trial by judge was a very easy decision to make.
The final decision in the chain was, of course, made by Major Humphries. The testimony of Specialist Guay was inconsistent and unconvincing compared with his written statement. Defense witnesses contradicted Guay’s claim that he told me to remove the beads. The lasting impression was that he told me “he did not want to see the beads,” according to witnesses who testified that the beads were no longer in sight after the formation.
Really, it wasn’t even a contest. Had the trial been a prize fight, the ref would have stopped it in the first round. Minutes after the closing statements the judge summarily shooed us from his overheated, nicotine saturated courtroom with a verdict of “Not guilty, case dismissed.” My bunkmates and I celebrated that night with a victory banner and Kool-Aid. I flaunted my triumph to family, friend and foe. I fought the power and won.
Three months later, I received my orders to report to Vietnam.