He was a tall, dark-haired renegade Marine from Indiana who spent the war with the enemy, moving through the Vietnam jungles on VC patrol, his feet protected by Ho Chi Minh sandals, a Russian-made AK47 at the ready. f
He wheedled, cajoled, sometimes terrorized American POWs to come on over to the other side, interrogating them in English, then switching to fluent Vietnamese to pal around with enemy guards, his hoochmates. POWs came to know him as the "White Vietnamese," the phantom Marine who wore the enemy uniform and carried a bullhorn to exhort American soldiers to throw down their arms. He savored special rations of canned meat, sugar and cigarettes while they went hungry.
And once, he "sucker punched" an American prisoner after protein-starved prisoners of war killed the camp cat, the enemy mascot, skinned it and ate it.
To the North Vietnamese, he was Nguyen Chin Dao, "Son of Freedom Fighter." But to the American POWs who encountered him, he was just plain Bobby Garwood, traitor.
They are finally settling accounts on the witness stand here in a stuffy, wood-paneled courtroom on this sprawling Marine base carved out of 110,000 acres of North Carolina forest.
But the trial of accused Marine turn-coat Robert Garwood, 34, who spent 14 years in Vietnam after he was captured outside Danang in 1965, is more than the saga of old soldiers settling the score. Garwood is the only American POW who has been prosecuted for desertion and collaboration with the enemy during the Vietnam war. And his trial is becoming one of the longest and most complex in military history.
At stake is more than the traditions of the Marine Corps, and whether Garwood violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice under which he is charged with urging American troops to throw down their arms, desertion in time of war, collaboration and mistreating fellow prisoners. At stake is the Code of Conduct, the military's commandments, set down as moral principles to guide American soldiers taken captive. Hardliners, that is most Marines, maintain that the Code of Conduct allows them to give no more than name, rank, serial number and date of birth to enemy interrogators, notwithstanding torture, suffering, or the popularity of the war back home.
But his actions as a POW aren't the issue, says his attorneys. Garwood was a 19-year-old Marine living on the edge of mental illness, driven insane -- and into the arms of the enemy -- by the torture and hardship he underwent as a POW. He can't be held responsible for his actions, argues John Lowe, 44, a silver-haired, silver-tongued Charlottesville attorney who heads Garwood's defense team.
Lowe had disputed little testimony, planning to mount a mammoth psychiatric defense that he outlined in opening arguments and is scheduled to begin in mid-December. He portrays Garwood as a mentally unstable high school dropout, dropped on his head at birth, who joined the Marines as the only escape from reform school and a troubled home life in Adams, Ind.
Such an emotional history made him a prime candidate for what psychiatrists call Atypical Dissociative Reaction, a mental disease brought on by the brainwashing or "coercive persuasion" Garwood suffered in captivity after VS yanked him from his Mighty Mite jeep Sept. 28, 1965, weeks before he was scheduled to go home.
It was a year before any American POW came into contact with Garwood. Little is known of that missing year, or the time Garwood spent in Vietnam after the troops came home except what Garwood has told his lawyers. Garwood has maintained he was a captive until he walked up to a Finnish businessman in a Hanoi bar in February 1979 and handed him a note that was relayed to the State Department. Soon afterward Hanoi granted Garwood an exit visa and he was on his way home, a walking Rip Van Winkle who had not only missed the national trauma he symbolizes, but also a whole generation of change: the Beatles, Americans walking on the moon, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Richard M. Nixon's election and downfall.
Soon, his accusers came forward and the Marine Corps changed his status from POW to defector. It is uncertain whether he will be called as a witness.
"He's got to testify," said one military court official. "How else will they get his story out? No one else is going to say [Garwood] was tortured and driven mad."
Garwood's defense is similar to the one F. Lee Bailey argued unsuccessfully for newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, convicted of bank robbery after she was kidnaped and tortured by members of a terrorist organization. Such a defense has never known to have been successful in an American court. But Lowe, who helped activist laywer William Kuntsler defend Indians in the Wounded Knee trials, remains optimistic of a landmark decision.
According to Lowe, Garwood did his best to uphold the Marine Corps standards of bravery by trying to escape. He first tried six days after he was captured. He marched through the jungles in his underwear, a gunshot wound in his arm boiling with infection. Recaptured, he was beaten so severely he had to be dragged through the jungle on a litter.
The Vietcong "exhibited [Garwood] as a captive . . . he was spat upon, stoned, and sticks [were] thrown at him," Lowe told the court. He hung naked for a month in a bamboo cage without food or water, growing weaker, suffering from exposure, ravenous leeches and mosquitoes, malaria and diarrhea. s
Only then, after degradation and humiliation did Garwood break. Yes, he said, he would sign propaganda statements, then he tried to escape once more. Again he was caught, beaten and urinated upon. He was forced to watch VC use South Vietnamese POWs for target practice, required to witness ARVN soldiers play a Russian roulette game similar to that depicted in the movie, "The Deer Hunter." Don't worry, the VC told him so he wouldn't avert his eyes, the gun isn't loaded. They lied. And Garwood watched men die for the amusements of his captors.
"The end result [of the trauma] was serious mental disease," said Lowe, who plans to introduce all manner of psychiatrists, among them one who is working with the State Department on the hostage release.
A jury of five Marine officers, all Vietnam veterans who mirror the corps' psyche of toughness, must decide whether a Marine can indeed break, whether Garwood is a traitor or a victim. Each was asked by a Garwood lawyer what they would do as a captive if a guard put a pistol "to your head and said he was going to pull the trigger unless you signed some innocuous statement . . . like, 'all Americans are imperialists.'"
"I'd tell them to pull the trigger," they testified, one by one during jury selection.
Some jurors said they believed a Marine could be broken; others didn't. One juror said he'd commit suicide before being broken by the enemy.
But they also claimed they could give Garwood a fair trial, regardless of how their decision might affect the reputation of the Marine Corps. They said they could turn the clock back 15 years to examine the situation from the point of view of a 19-year-old Marine private, now an enigma with dark, deep-set eyes who sits watching the proceedings with apparent interest, chain smokes Winstons on his break, works as a file clerk on base when not in court and drives a cherry red '56 Chevrolet with foam dice hanging from the rear view mirror. He's still a private after all these years.
If he is convicted, Garwood stands to lose some $140,000 in back pay, now held in escrow, and earn himself a sentence of life imprisonment. The death penalty was ruled out.
The Garwood case certainly ressurects old Vietnam ghosts the Pentagon tried to bury in 1973. Then, in a move to heal the nation's wartime trauma, the nation's military leaders pressured then Air Force Colonel Theodore Guy, a POW for 4 1/2 years, to drop his charges against eight American POWs accused of collaborating with the enemy. Charges were dropped against members of the self-dubbed Peace Committee after one alleged collaborator, a Marine sergeant, committed suicide.
Only one other Marine besides Garwood, John Sweeney, has ever been brought to trial for misconduct while a POW; he was acquitted in 1971.
Guy's charges put a damper on Operation Homecoming, which saw the return of 555 POWS. He accused two Americans of constructing model U.S. aircraft to help the North Vietnamese Army in target practice, not only showing them how to lead the planes, but also where to aim to bring them down with small arms fire.
"Bobby's charges aren't nearly that serious," said defense attorney Vaughn Taylor, 33, an expert in psychiatric law. His defense team moved months ago that Garwood's charges be dismissed because such a trial violated Defense Department and White House policy. The motion was denied. CAPTION: Picture, Marine Pvt. Robert Garwood: he was "exhibited as a captive . . . he was spat upon, stoned, sticks [were] thrown at him." UPI