Monday, February 16, 2009

My International Incident

This article is about an incident I was involved in during the winter of ’75 and ’76, while I was still in the Air Force and stationed in the Panama Canal Zone. I had arrived there during the most significant ’break’ in my marriage and had spent the time since that break, both before and after moving to Panama, smoking as much marijuana as I could tolerate. And considering that, in Panama at that time, the stuff cost only $10 an ounce and $90 a pound, spending as much of my time as I could get away with stoned out of my mind was pretty easy.

You must understand that I joined the Air Force and got married when I was only seventeen years old. So while I was excited to visit what to me seemed a far off and exotic land, I was still little more than a child who felt trapped and isolated thousands of miles from anything that felt like home. As a matter of fact I had already gotten myself into trouble, only months after my arrival, by being caught in possession of marijuana in my barracks room with a couple of boys my age. Because one of the boys was only seventeen and both were civilian dependents of senior Air Force personnel, I was lucky that I was only fined, given a six month suspension of promotion, and forced to attend drug rehab classes. But despite this very clear warning, I still allowed my desire for companionship and my drug induced blindness to lead me even further down the path towards disaster.

At that time Panama was a virtual police state, which was plainly evident by the many national guardsmen in full military uniform and assault weapons positioned throughout the areas I visited. The people there were so poor and the slums were so heart breaking that the sights rivaled almost any shown in those commercials asking for help for the poor starving children of the world. It seemed that what little economic activity there was was focused almost entirely on catering to the U. S. personnel stationed in the canal zone. And when you consider the stereotypical wants of military men, it’s not surprising that much of that activity was frowned upon.

In addition to the abundance of marijuana and other plant-based drugs, Panama had a burgeoning population of prostitutes. While prostitution was strictly forbidden for Panamanian women it was, oddly enough, openly allowed for the thousands of women from other countries who had come there specifically for that reason. Apparently, these other countries where in such bad economic shape that it had become customary for some of their women to spend time as prostitutes in Panama while sending money back to their families at home. Of course, with the local women having such a hard time, the laws against prostitution did little to deter them from joining in the game.

Now every incoming soldier was warned of the potential danger of being caught up in trouble that might land them in a local jail. Because of the political problems between the U. S. and the government of Panama, American military personnel had been known to disappear into local incarceration with no one bothering to inform anyone of their situation. So it’s should come as no surprise that, despite the flagrant violation of military rules, GI’s preferred to do their ’partying’ on base where they felt a little more safe to enjoy themselves. I know for a fact that, in my barracks at least, hardly a night went by that somebody didn’t have one or more prostitutes in their room.

If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ve probably already guessed at the kind of nightmare I was walking right into. But there’s no way you would be able to guess at the actual enormity of that nightmare. It all started so innocently, you see. Because I found trips into Panama City to be such sad and nerve wracking events, it was only rarely that I allowed someone to talk me into going with them. And it was on one of these ’adventures’ that an associate of mine approached two girls about getting together at some point to party. Being the extremely shy person that I was, I was just glad when he had finished telling them how to find us on base and we could move on. And I had completely forgotten about it when they actually came looking for us a few nights later.

By the time that night rolled around I had a room to myself, which I made my very own by placing the mattresses for two beds together in a big square on the floor and decorating the walls in a checkerboard pattern of photos and articles from Playboy and Penthouse magazines. I have no idea how I was able to get away with having a room in a military barracks look that way, considering the frowns of disapproval I got whenever inspections came around. But nevertheless it made the perfect spot for my friends to want to party in, so that’s where the four of us spent the evening.

I must make it very clear that this party was not planned by me in any way. In fact, I made it clear at the start that it had to end rather early because I was due to work a midnight to 8 am shift. Also, there was no sexual activity whatsoever, not because I didn’t want to, but because one of the girls was feeling sick and the other was concerned about her friend. So we spent the time we had talking and listening to music. Unfortunately, as the time for me to go to work came closer, the one girl became more and more sick. So sick in fact that by the time I had to go to work I simply didn’t have the heart to send her on the long bus ride back to wherever she lived. As idiotic as it may seem now, I decided to let her stay in my room overnight while I went to work.

What a bad decision that turned out to be! Again, you must understand that I left her in my room because I was trying to do the right thing. But I also acknowledge that I was fully aware of the risk that I was taking by doing so. I even chose leaving her in the room alone instead of seeking medical help for her because I wanted to avoid the trouble I would undoubtedly get into for having her there in the first place. All this I acknowledge without hesitation. Nevertheless, I was still shocked when, five minutes before my shift ended, I was contacted by the base’s chief of security.

I tried to pretend that I didn’t know what he was talking about at first, but my denials simply flew out the window when he told me what the housekeeping staff had found when they came in my barracks. Like imagery form some TV crime scene, the chief described how they had found a trail of blood leading from a very large pool on my bed to another very large pool originating from the girl’s vagina while she lay half-dead on the bathroom floor. As you might expect, I was in big trouble and my protestations of innocence fell on somewhat deaf ears.

Quite rapidly, this turned into an extremely embarrassing international incident with Panamanian officials accusing me of attempted murder and with the U. S government wanting to simply throw me to the wolves to make it all go away. The commander of the base had quite predictably, considering my record, filed the necessary paperwork to push for immediate court-martial proceedings. It seemed that everyone had turned their backs on me, including my ’friend’ that had been at the party that night. As for the other guys I lived and worked with, all I got from them were sick jokes about how large my penis had to be to cause so much damage.

Fortunately, military law requires that even naive fools like me get legal representation when stuck in such situations. And even more fortunately, I had a very good military lawyer assigned to my case. But even with all the phone calls he made and all the letters he sent out on my behalf, Captain Hood had a very steep hill to climb in order to save my hide. It helped some that it had been a pet peeve of his that enlisted men had these restrictions on who they could have in their barracks while officers could have pretty much any visitors they wanted, but the fact that the girl was in no condition to help with the remainder of the charges still left me with my butt very exposed.

I was all but court-martialed and on my way to prison when one of those amazing ’hallelujah’ things happened to save my ass. The girl came out of her coma and was decent enough to tell what actually happened that night - and what led up to it. As it turned out, she had had one of those back-alley type abortions only hours before she and her friend had come out to the base. I’m pretty sure that the Panamanian government wasn’t pleased at being denied the opportunity to stick it to the Americans more than they already had, and I know for a fact that my commanders were still quite pissed at my having made them look so bad, but in the end they were left with only the charge of having unauthorized personnel in my barracks to hold against me. And the fact that Capt. Hood had been campaigning against that rule as being discriminatory left them in a bad position even when it came down to that.

So to everyone’s great relief, they offered, and I accepted, an honorable discharge a full year before I would have been otherwise eligible. Provided, of course, that I was on a flight back home within a week. Naturally I was happy at the prospect of getting off so easy. I was also looking forward to going home to attempt the reunification of my marriage. But I was not happy that my Air Force career was coming to such a bad ending. You see, despite all of the trouble and my disillusionment with the military, I still had those naive and idealistic hopes that my service would end up being something I could be proud of. I really was quite ashamed that things ended up the way they did.

Well, to wrap up this sad and sordid tale, I spent the next week packing and shipping my stuff home, while at the same time taking all five of the G.E.D. tests in just two sessions with almost no preparation whatsoever. Amazingly, after arriving home from the tropics in the dead of winter, I later received the results from those tests along with a letter from Captain Hood praising me for having gotten above average scores under such difficult circumstances. I was very happy with the results, and with the praise he though that I deserved, but both things were also painful reminders of how little I had done with the potential I had.

This sense of failure stayed with me through all of the years I spent struggling to get a degree while still getting stoned to alleviate some of the pain. It bothered me so much that as soon as I got my Associates Degree, I headed out to try and re-enlist. That’s when I discovered that the Air Force hadn’t let me off so easily after all. While it didn’t matter much in my civilian life according to the recruiter, a re-enlistment rating of 5 was the worst that it got for a anyone hoping to return to the military. According to him, this rating was so bad that he had thought it was reserved only for traitors and such. You know, the ’Benedict Arnold’ types.

After I explained to the recruiter what had happened in Panama, he agreed that a rating of 5 was a bit extreme. He even explained the process through which the rating could be appealed. But he made it clear that such an appeal was long, costly and rarely successful. In the end he advised that, considering that those records were off limits to civilian employers and were automatically erased after a few years anyway, I should just move on with my life away from the military.

So much for working for a happy ending by trying to make things right.

I want ice water.

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