OVER BATTLEFIELDS in Vietnam sharp-nosed Cobra attack helicopters swooped down spewing death, the buuuuurp buuuuurp of their miniguns a terrible roaring that seemed to fill the whole sky. They buzzed over enemy positions like angry green bees, rockets streaking down at sharp angles and whoomph whoomph whoomphing into black smoke billowing from the patchwork of ricefield and forest below.

For their pilots, it was a kind of terrifying and exhilarating Atari game in real life, a world seen through the yellows and reds of infrared sighting systems as they worked both hands and feet on complex flight controls and triggers. Enemy bullets ripping through the metal skins of their choppers made distinct thuds.

The Cobra is one of the most awesome killing machines in the history of warfare: a single helicopter with the capability -- in the almost caressing phrase of military tacticians -- to "vertically envelop" the enemy with the firepower of a battalion. Its computer-coordinated weapons include the so-called minigun or machinegun firing 4,000 rounds a minute, a 40 mm cannon firing grenades at machinegun speed and 17-pound rockets each of which can devastate a hamlet.

"Shooting, that was the most exhilarating feeling," said Peter Krutschewski, a former Army pilot who flew Cobras in combat. "I always low-leveled (flew low and fast) .... I'd come over that hill and nose it up and just start blasting away. Guys (U.S. troops on the ground) would cheer."

Today Krutschewski -- one of America's highly decorated combat veterans and a man who became a self-made oil millionaire after he left Vietnam -- is about to go to prison to serve a 10-year sentence for smuggling marijuana.

Is there a connection between his wartime service and his smuggling? Cleveland State University psychologist John P. Wilson, a pioneer in studying the Vietnam stress syndrome, thinks so. He believes Krutschewski began a psychological power trip as a Cobra pilot that years later drove him involuntarily to seek thrills as a smuggler.

"It's an addictive machine. It's awesome to have so much power and speed and mobility. He became an action junkie," said Wilson. "I was just amazed to watch a film his copilot took from inside the Cobra, to watch a rocket blow away a village. He got wired up to the helicopter. There was this synergy between man and machine. It led to an irrational and delusional sense of power. It led to the need for power and action, the need for risk .... The addictive power is not in killing people. It's the ... exquisite sense of technical mastery. He's not a criminal type at all."

I read much of the psychiatric testimony in the case and interviewed Krutschewski for hours. I liked him. He is a lean, well-mannered, extremely jittery man who appears sincere. There is a tormented, almost desperate quality to him. I sympathized with him, yet in the end I question whether what he went through in Vietnam should excuse his criminal conduct. Here's his tale:

Krutschewski (pronounced Kur-CHESS- ki) was a clean-cut kid drafted out of Lansing, Mich., sent to Army flight school and then Vietnam in mid-1968. He was assigned to an attack helicopter company and immediately went into combat.

"I was so worried and so scared I didn't even s---or eat for 14 days," he said. In that time he lost 34 pounds.

It was dangerous. Krutschewski said 66 of 101 graduates of his flight class were killed his first year in Vietnam -- a statistic he and friends compiled from KIA lists in "Stars and Stripes," the military newspaper.

His second day in Vietnam, Krutschewski was due to fly on a transport chopper that took off without him because he was late. Another trooper volunteered to take his place. The chopper was shot down and its occupants killed.

Krutschewski was shot down several times but never wounded. He saw friends killed. Of one he said: "I saw him go end over end. He was shouting over the radio, 'Mayday, I'm hit, I'm hit.'"

There were atrocities. "On a trip to Quangtin in a deuce-and-a-half (a 21/2-ton truck), we were going 50 mph and a Vietnamese on a bike was coming the opposite direction. An enlisted man grabs a sandbag and hits him dead in the chest. He was laughing. They were all laughing. My immediate thought was, 'How do we expect to win the war?'"

Krutschewski said that on the first transport chopper flight he took in Vietnam the pilot ordered the gunner to "kick out a C-ration box of candy over a big garbage dump next to our base. Two hundred (Vietnamese who were scavenging in the dump) converged on the candy. Then he made another pass and threw out three willie pete (deadly white phosphorus) grenades on them."

Krutschewski "thought it was horrible" but held his tongue.

"Two-and-a-half weeks later, we were carrying a colonel in back (in a transport chopper). The colonel says, 'Hover over there.' There was an old (Vietnamese) guy, all he was doing was hoeing his rice paddy. He looked 80. The colonel said, 'This guy's a VC.' He shot and killed him from 15 feet with his .45.... I didn't report it. What for? Who to? I thought these incidents absolutely grotesque. (But) the colonel wasn't even with our unit. I was a warrant officer. A colonel was like God to me....

"I like to think I never did anything vindictive, but I was sad all the way through. For everybody. I think that's what Vietnam left me with most -- a great sadness: for the pain, for the grieving tragedies in war and for similar things that happen to people outside war. It created such an impression on me of how wrong and harmful is the misuse of power that has no recourse. These were people being brutal animals."

Krutschewski said he gained a reputation as responsible and straight. "Everyone called me 'Dad' because I did everything by the book. Nobody would do these things around me after I had standing."

But he thinks he participated in what could have been an atrocity. "I was ordered to roll in on about 60 (Vietnamese). We were having a firefight with them. Thirty were Vietcong using citizens and water buffalo (as cover). The C and C (command and control) major orders us to roll in and kill them all. There were three Cobras and two Loaches (a small observation helicopter) and (U.S.) ground troops. The VC were retreating with the citizens and animals. One Loach pilot, a captain, refused to go in, and I didn't feel it was right to kill the citizens. I was ordered."

The captain did not relent. He refused to obey the order. "They shipped him out that day. I went in and so did the other two Cobras. I feel bad.... I'm not sure they were all (Vietcong).... Even if I did know (that they were all Vietcong), I still have moral qualms about killing people en masse. I was a tool for the U.S. Army. I didn't question any decision by the Army. Command decisions involving life and death I never questioned outwardly. I questioned (them) inwardly."

It is impossible to check these stories but it would be unusual if several such things had not happened to a man whose Army record -- introduced at his trial -- showed he received 44 Air Medals, each representing 25 hours of combat flying, and four medals for valor in action, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses.

One DFC was for saving six companions. "Warrant Officer Krutschewski repeatedly left his aircraft unprotected from enemy fire in order to locate the friendly positions," said the award narrative. "After locating the friendly force, operating in conditions of extremely low visibility, he continually made low level attacks on the enemy positions. His sound judgment and courageous actions (made possible) the safe extraction of the six men."

Another award narrative said, "Through his courage and determination, Warrant Officer Krutschewski contributed greatly to the successful combat assault of the A Shau Valley" -- one of the most ferocious large-scale battles of the war.

After a year in combat, Krutschewski was returned to the U.S. and assigned to aircraft maintainence at Ft. Bliss. This was so boring that he asked to return to Vietnam and spent another six months in combat there. Then he was honorably discharged from the Army.

He spent the next few years finishing college at Michigan State, working several jobs simultaneously and attending flight school in hopes of becoming a commercial airline pilot.

"I was trying to put things behind me," he said.

He couldn't do it. He was changed: the popular, hard-working, trouble-free kid had been replaced by jittery man desperate for action. "When he came home all he did was walk the floor. He was just a nervous wreck," said his mother, Anna M. Krutschewski. "I thought, 'My God, what have they done to my son?'"

Krutschewski said he is still "a real hyper person.... I get five hours sleep a day. I go 100 percent all the time."

Growing up, Krutschewski had "believed patriotism was the top priority. When they reclassified me (1A) I didn't fight it because I felt I owed that. If that's what they thought I should do, then OK."

But now these feelings were gone, too.

He found that while some sympathized with what he had gone through in Vietnam, "others would slap you in the face, call you a dirty dog or a killer.... We (veterans) were forced to solve all these problems inside ourselves."

He couldn't get an airline job.

Craving action and money, Krutschewski then spent more than two years smuggling marijuana and hashish, a powerful derivative of marijuana. There is no evidence he dealt in more powerful drugs.

It began early in 1973 when an acquaintance in El Paso called and proposed bringing in marijuana from Mexico.

Krutschewski jumped at the chance. "I was looking for adventure.... I didn't like being outside the law (but) this was my retaliation for the system: getting even with the people who didn't go to Vietnam (and) a way to get enough dollars to pay my rent. In a restaurant, I could pay the check and feel like a normal human being, not like somebody looking for a cab driver job. It was very exciting. It had the adrenelin, the same feeling as flying in Vietnam."

He had no qualms about smuggling marijuana because so many people smoked it. He smoked it then although in Vietnam he had not.

Working with his El Paso acquaintances, Krutschewski and another pilot he had known in Vietnam bought a beat-up plane and flew illegally into Mexico. "We crash landed on the desert.... We were chopping through (bushes). We ran into the VW (parked on the desert by a Mexican connection) while we were landing to its lights." They flew the marijuana to Colorado.

Krutschewski took his earnings to Las Vegas and won $42,000 at blackjack.

Then he went to Fort Lauderdale and bought a 43-foot motor sailboat. He sailed to St. Thomas, encountering "a big huge storm. It was the scariest thing I'd ever seen. I'd never sailed before."

In St., Thomas Krutschewski met two men who proposed smuggling marijuana to Miami from Colombia, South America. The three did it.

"I made $100,000, took it and headed for Europe." Joining with others, including two pilots he had known in Vietnam, Krutschewski hatched another deal. Alone he went to Morocco and "moved in with the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains. They are allowed to make hashish in their region.... I stayed five months.... I built a press out of a dump truck, and we pressed 10,000 pounds of hash.... The women take marijuana branches and beat them over a barrel with a screen. The pollen that fell through was what they made the hash out of. Then you press it into a resin."

The hashish was loaded onto Krutschewski's boat and his companions sailed it across the Atlantic to Gloucester, Mass., and unloaded it. "It went like clockwork," said Krutschewski. But he said the hashish was of poor quality and he made no money.

He moved to Colombia. There he met three cab drivers who proposed smuggling 27 tons of marijuana into Gloucester. They teamed up with some of Krutschewski's old partners and others -- including 15 men to load and unload -- and launched a platoon-sized, military-style operation.

"We had four cabin cruisers. We pulled (the drugs) up a cliff in the middle of town (over) two nights. We had panel trucks," said Krutschewski. He said they weren't suspected because they dressed and acted like tourists despite their binoculars and two-way radios.

The operation was a success but, "After this I walked away. This was my turning point. I didn't like the people.... These are criminal acts.... I didn't want to be a criminal. I never thought of myself as going to jail."

After going straight, Krutschewski went into the oil business in Michigan at the suggestion of a college roommate who was buying drilling rights from farmers. Oil prices were rising in the wake of international supply disruptions. The pair struck it rich.

"The oil business has been my salvation," said Krutschewski. "... I lived and died the oil business 24 hours a day."

Not only was it legitimate, it satisfied Krutschewski's thirst for action. He flew about the state frenetically making deals, handling huge amounts of money and taking great financial risks.

"I owned 14 percent of the first well. I borrowed $30,000 for it. It came in at 250 barrels (10,500 gallons) a day.... Shell offered $600,000... for the 14 percent... we didn't sell.... That well is still producing and my company makes $5,000 a month from it."

Krutschewski makes $100,000 a year and estimated his net worth at $2 million.

Driving to work one morning in late 1979 with his bride of one month, Krutschewski was pulled over by a policeman. Within minutes, squad cars converged from all directions. After nearly five years of living straight, he had been fingered by informers.

"Deep down in my heart I all along knew this would have to come out for me to go full circle and become a full member of the system.... I worried the entire five years constantly about being apprehended and going to jail.... I'm an optimistic person. I was always the class happy-go-lucky guy, but tragedy is part of my life now."

At the trial a year later before a federal jury in Boston, Krutschewski admitted smuggling but claimed innocence because of the Vietnam-stress syndrome -- a modern phrase for symptoms earlier called shell shock or battle fatigue and that victims of fires, concentration camps, rapes, and other traumatic experiences can also suffer.

Victims of this mental disease feel guilt at surviving and may suffer emotional numbing, hyperalertness, exaggerated startle response, difficulty in falling asleep, or behavior that is aggressive, explosive or impulsive -- often years after their traumatic experience. They may involuntarily be driven to engage in irrational, hallucinatory or self-destructive behavior in a subconscious effort to relive the traumatic event and master it psychologically.

A defense psychiatrist told the jury Krutschewski didn't have a choice in committing his crime because his acts were "determined by unconscious factors" stemming from wartime trauma.

Psychologist Wilson -- who studied Krutschewski's case but was not called to the stand -- said Krutschewski's smuggling was "a panic search to find something to give legitimate meaning to his life and at the same time to give the hit, the fix (that he got) flying the chopper. The opportunity came to do it and at the same time to stick (his) middle finger at the government. It has all the elements -- danger, a mission, difficulty, tactical skill; there's an enemy, an attack.... He replicated the psychological dynamics of being in the war.... He feels compelled to do it for reasons he can't explain."

The prosecutor argued Krutschewski was not driven crazy in this way -- even temporarily -- but was simply an adrenalin-junkie who enjoyed extremes of action, excitement and challenge: a kind of Vietnam-era Jay Gatsby who loved high-living, gambling, and womanizing and who "did the (criminal) acts because they were calculated decisions that he made, because he desired to make a quantity of money."

A psychiatrist testified for the government that Krutschewski showed few if any symptoms of the stress syndrome -- such as frequent recollections about Vietnam or nightmares -- but actually seemed to have "a lot of pleasant memories, and having been a commander and done a good job, and having done a patriotic duty."

Nobody disputed that Krutschewski was a combat hero who returned home to as many boos as cheers -- and the jurors showed, even while rejecting the stress syndrome defense and convicting him, a special reluctance to come down too hard.

The stress syndrome has been successfully used as a defense in violent crimes committed on the spur of the moment, but it didn't work in this case where the crime required careful planning and expert management over a long period.

U.S. District Judge D.J. Skinner sentenced Krutschewski to 10 years in prison and a $60,000 fine -- the maximum fine possible for the crimes of which Krutschewski was convicted. He said he would consider alternate sentencing with community service if it didn't permit Krutschewski to "enjoy the benefits of his smuggling profits."

Krutschewski said there was no smuggling money in his oil business but the judge found he made up to $1.5 million smuggling and used some of it to start the business.

Krutschewski proposed paying the government $1.75 million over four years from his oil profits and working 30 hours a week in mental hospitals.

In a written opinion the judge ultimately rejected this plan, saying he approved of recovering Krutschewski's "ill-gotten gains" but considered the proposal unsatisfactory because the cash payments were to be based on future oil production and therefore would be "partly speculative."

While the judge acknowledged that Krutschewski had already rehabilitated himself and was "the most highly decorated pilot in the Vietnam War" (an assertion that a Pentagon spokesman refused to check), he concluded that letting Krutschewski off without imprisonment would fail to deter others from drug smuggling.

The judge decided for prison after noting the "astonishing" fact that he received a letter from the psychiatrist who had testified for the government requesting that in deciding on a sentence the judge pay attention to Krutschewski's "excellent military record and his more recent civic conduct."

Krutschewski is due to enter prison on Jan. 4 and could be paroled after 40 months.

Of 18 smugglers convicted with Krutschewski nine received suspended sentences, seven were sentenced to between four and six months, one received a 15-month sentence and another five years.

"Is not my money and four years' service enough retribution?" said Krutschewski. "... I got 10 years because the judge thought I should be an example. It's because I'm a successful businessman.... I never committed a crime before.... I'm a good citizen and a good person in the community."

To Vietnam Veterans of America chief Bobby Muller, a national spokesman for many Vietnam veterans, Skinner's decision is an outrage. "If this fellow is allowed to go down the tubes without consideration for the nature of his wartime service, then it's a travesty," said Muller. "... After a tumultuous readjustment period, (he) finally put his life together. But his past has come back to haunt him."

Muller recalled a recent meeting that he and Krutschewski had with lawyers in Boston. "The lawyer drove home the reality, 'You're going to jail.' Peter and I went back to his hotel and he puked his guts up.... I think it was a reaction to the stress: 'Holy s---, I'm going to jail.'"

Krutschewski's sentence comes at a time when the nation's prisons are overflowing.

"We don't have room in these (prisons) for people like that gentleman. It's not going to serve any purpose to put him behind bars," said William Brennan, an official of the American Correctional Assnd ociation who recently headed a Justice Department outreach program for incarcerated veterans. He said Krutschewski could be sentenced to work in a youth program. "Someone like that could really (help) kids. Community service can be of tremendous value.... Wouldn't that be better than paying the $20,000 it will cost to keep him in jail a year?"

Krutschewski says he will survive prison because "nothing can destroy me. It's just more sadness, more tragedy: ... the sadness of my little girl not having a father for three years, sadness at losing the rebuilding of my life."