One recent morning, U.S. Army Pfc. Jeff Dean and Sp-4 Michael Rogers, absent without leave from their base in Fort Clayton, Panama, examined the phone book in their D.C. hotel room and, finding a pawn shop listed nearby, proceeded to exchange Dean's portable stereo cassette player and Rogers' high school graduation ring for a total of $80.
They returned to the hotel and reported the sale to their third partner, Pfc. Duane Currie, who agreed that the results were not bad. The sale would fund another two days of the three GIs' consuming enterprise: trying to get President Reagan to listen to their list of grievances and complaints about Fort Clayton and the 193rd Brigade, whose mission it is to protect the Panama Canal.
Dean, Rogers and Currie had become three more petitioners in Washington, part of the stream that regularly flows into the city seeking assistance, redress, or, as Dean put it "just someone to listen to our problems," at the White House.
They were here 10 days, they did not see the president, they spent $650 each out of their average monthly salary of $700, they avoided the GI bars for lack of funds, they went to the top of the Washington Monument and pondered canvasses in the National Gallery ("the Picassos were pretty good, but those guys who paint things called 'Blue and Yellow' -- what's that?"). They walked past fancy restaurants and stared, were often depressed and dubious but more frequently had a good time.
To anyone who has been in the Army, Dean, Rogers and Currie's tales of life in the Panamanian tropics might sound like the usual soldiers' complaint. But to them they are outrageous problems, and that is why they came here. Their quest began the last day of August. Currie, 19, and Dean, 20, had been sitting around after dinner at Fort Clayton, just outside Panama City, watching "General Hospital" ("the hottest show in Panama") on the GI station with a couple of friends. The talk turned to their second favorite topic: how bad life on base is.
The previous night three of their close friends, Currie told the others, had been harassed and pummeled by members of Panama's only military force, the Guardia Nacional. One of the friends was arrested and held overnight.
There is a story making the rounds of the barracks, firmly believed by all, that a Guardia shot a GI dead after an incident in a bar last fall, without charges ever being pressed by the U.S. government. On this night that story was recounted again, along with another of a reservist who drowned in the Canal this year during training exercises. The GIs were bitter. With stories like those, the usual litany -- poor housing and worse hygiene, officer harassment and incompetence, lack of advancement opportunity and insufficient home leave -- seemed almost trivial that evening.
"It was Duane that got the idea," Dean said, relaxing in the shade in sight of the Washington Monument last week. "We'd all thought for a long time of doing things like writing a newspaper editorial, or a report. When Duane said 'Hey! Why don't we just go see the president!' we all thought he was crazy. Then it started making sense."
"I came in late that evening," Rogers said. "My first impression when they told me they were going and wanted me to join was that it was a joke. I went through all this thing about going through the proper channels, but when they told me about the guys getting beaten up I was convinced."
It was the night of payday, the soldiers knew of a 2:30 a.m. flight to Miami and there was no good reason to put off such an important decision another day. They stuffed some clothes into a duffel bag and were off. Absent Without Leave. AWOL.
They sit very straight, say "yes ma'am" and "sir" at every opportunity, support Ronald Reagan and generally think conservative. They had never been abroad before their tour of duty, and are unaware of how common it is for foreigners to be hassled, challenged to fights or arbitrarily arrested both in the United States and abroad. "We the undersigned would like it known that we are basically good, moral, pro-American and pro-army soldiers," the GIs wrote in a letter they drafted for Reagan.
Rogers, who is 23 and has an E-4 rank, is the dean of the group. He is a computer operator in the 193rd's Administrative Division who turned down a scholarship to Chicago's De Vry Institute of Technology four years ago for the experience the Army offered. He is also the first member of his family ever to graduate from high school -- a proud, taut survivor of Chicago's slums.
Sitting tensely on a bench at the Mall in the middle of a warm Labor Day afternoon, he said he had applied seven times for home leave in the course of his two years in Panama, and only been granted one week's in-country leave. It was partly as a result of this that he decided to go AWOL, although, he said, he had only two more months to go of a blameless tour of duty.
Dean and Currie have known each other since their families moved to small towns in northern Massachusetts. Their parents have divorced and remarried, struggled with low-paying jobs and embattled small businesses, lost money and sometimes made it.
Dean dreamed of working in the film industry, Currie of running his own electronic shop, but when the national unemployment rate of 19.1 percent for teen-agers in April of 1981 became a reality for them, they both decided to join the Army.
Dean lost a tooth to an MP during regularly scheduled riot-control exercises in which the administrative personnel are set up as targets for anti-riot policemen. "We're the Panamanians," Dean said. "One of us is always a priest, and the women get to act pregnant. They give us a whole bunch of dirty food from the canteen in a garbage can, and mix up some mud with a hose and tell us to throw it at the MPs and shout to them about their mothers, to get them angry. Then they charge, with helmets, and masks and shields and guards. We don't even get a chest protector."
Other than these misfortunes, they have done well. They are personnel records specialists in the Administrative Section at Fort Clayton.
"What if we chained ourselves to the gates?" Currie wondered on their fourth day in town. The three soldiers were embarking on their first real day of president-chasing, on their way to the White House.
The first day had been devoted to the meticulous drafting of their letter to the president. The Labor Day weekend had consumed their cash while the government idled. In the excitement of their previous week's departure from Panama they had forgotten about the difficulties of cashing out-of-town checks, so they walked everywhere, ate little, and stayed only at pricey hotels that would accept their personal checks.
"The president came back from vacation just 'cause he heard we were coming," Dean said, actually very glad he would be in town to receive their letter. An early call to the office of Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas had not been very promising. Dean did not feel like calling Ted Kennedy.
"I wonder how long before the president reads it," someone mused. The three made the half-hour walk largely in silence, partly as a result of their increasingly skimpy breakfasts.
They walked past the 14th Street bars, always at their sleaziest in the hangover hours before 10 a.m. A man lazily swept the street in front of fleshy blowups. A pretty, red-eyed girl in blue jeans asked for a job at one of the bars. The GIs looked about them with interest. "This is the best part of town!" Dean said. "This is the GI district," Rogers agreed.
There was a small tizzy of last-minute handling and rereading of the letter before they entered the mail room of the old Executive Office Building, next to the White House. Presentation was important. "The president probably doesn't read everything that comes to him," Currie said.
Minutes later, the GIs' faces went dull. An amiable older man who took their letter had just told them delivery would take three to four weeks.
"I didn't expect it would be that long," a shaken Dean said. They sat on the railing to ponder their next move. Bare-chested joggers and men in three-piece suits burdened with briefcases passed by them, and pink-haired women on a senior citizens' tour of the capital, and rank-haired hobos.
Currie doubled himself awkwardly into the Military Police car parked in front of the main White House Guard booth. As an MP helped him lower himself onto the rear seat, Rogers kept his balance admirably, considering that, like Currie, his hands were shackled behind him. Two MPs joked and chatted pleasantly with several Secret Service men while a handcuffed Dean emerged from the small cell in the rear part of the booth and eased himself into a second waiting police car. He looked drawn and angry.
The cars paused while the massive White House gate glided open. Currie made an unsuccessful attempt to smile. Rogers managed a crooked grin and shrugged his shoulders. The cars accelerated and drove away. It was 3:45 p.m. and the GIs were on the first leg of a 2,072-mile trip back to Panama.
An hour earlier that afternoon, Sept. 9, they had set off for the White House to turn themselves in to the White House Guard. "We've done everything we knew how to do," Dean said. Their decision came after a visit with an aide to Dean's Massachusetts congressman, Dan Adams, who had said that these things took time. "If something happens, even slowly, to improve things down there, we'll feel proud. But if nothing changes, we still won't be sorry we came. We stood up for what we believed in. And we visited the capital, too."
As they walked they sang a few bars of "The Party's Over" and giggled. "This is it!" Currie said as they approached the White House. "End of the line."
At the White House gate before their arrest Sgt. R.E. Nixon of the Secret Service inquired their business. Rogers' voice was unusually tight and high. "We have a situation to explain." Nixon listened sympathetically, shook his head and smiled, and told them he would try to get a White House staffer to talk to them before calling the Military Police to arrest them. "You know, I was in the Army four years, and a lot of what you're saying sounds like what we lived through in my day."
There was a long wait outside the main White House gate and the three tried to ease it with nervous jokes, imagining the worst that could happen to them.
"I bet you this big MP is going to walk right up and slap some handcuffs on us."
"Yeah, lock our hands behind us."
"And escort us to a specially selected cell."
And that was exactly what happened.
A military spokesman later confirmed that after their arrest the soldiers received standard AWOL treatment. They were processed at Fort Meade, seen to have a clean record, released on their own recognizance, and ordered back to Panama.
Today, Rogers, Dean and Currie are awaiting punishment while confined to their base in Panama. Their sanctions could involve a loss of up to two grades in rank and $417 deducted from their monthly pay for each of three months.
"All the MPs we talked to while we were detained were very sympathetic to our complaints," Rogers said during a long distance call yesterday, "but they said it wasn't right to go AWOL."
Said an Army spokesman when he heard the story: "Sounds like the usual GI gripes.".