Outside the Opry House Lounge on Marines Corps Boulevard sat his cherry red 1956 Chevrolet, the one with the Beach Boys and Beatles tapes on the front seat, foam dice dangling from the rear view mirror and the "I'd Rather Be Home" sticker plastered on the bumper.
Inside the smoky darkness sat Bobby Garwood, the car's proud owner, a 34-year-old Marine private first class in search of his lost rock and roll years. A POW who spent 14 years in Vietnam, Garwood now finds himself accused of desertion and collaboration with an inscrutable enemy, the only American brought to trail on such charges from that controversial war.
He hunkered down at the bar, a tall, dark-haired man with deep-set eyes, alone with his Budweiser and his daydreams. A melancholy country tune of some no-account redneck wailed from the jukebox. Off in a corner, 10 Marines -- some no doubt first-graders during the early years of Vietnam and now as young and naive as Garwood was when the Viet Cong snatched the 19-year-old off his jeep outside Da Nang in 1965, weeks before he was to be returned home to "the world" -- fretted and fumed over the accused turncoat in their midst. They were getting drunker and more beligerent by the minute.
"You'd better leave or there's liable to be some hard feelings and some broken heads," growled a Marine gunnery sergeant.
"I didn't come here to cause trouble," said Garwood, pushing aside his half-finished beer. "I'll leave."
It's tough to be an accused traitor in a Marine Corps town of 35,000 leathernecks just itching to uphold dear Semper Fi.
Jim Daugherty, 49, the potbellied proprietor, escorted Garwood to the door and invited him not to come back. "I have nothing against him," said the bar owner. "But he's bad for business."
Former American prisoners, including F. Harold Kushner, an ex-Army doctor and POW for 5 1/2 years who lived in several jungle prisoner-of-war camps with Garwood and testified at his trial today, said Garwood joined the other side. He stayed healthy while other Americans subsisted on "three vermin-infested cups of rice a day," suffered from malnutrition, malaria, dysentery and began "dying like dominoes."
He informed on Americans, including Kushner, carried rifles and hand grenades and 'lived on the other side of the fence with [enemy] guards." He wore fresh black VC pajamas and sandals while other Americans went about for a time in bare feet and rags -- "tattered," said Kushner, whose wife, Valerie, protested the war during his captivity and seconded George McGovern's nomination for president at the 1972 Democratic convention.
Kushner said Garwood once told him he had "struck a deal" with the VC -- they promised to release him if he would work with them for a few months. the "other version was that he was morally and philosophically opposed to the war and wanted to help them," Kushner testified.
Conditions in the camps were "unspeakable," Kushner said, and some prisoners -- including himself -- were slowly driven insane, to the point of making propoganda broadcasts and statements. Garwood, he said, appeared to be less emotionally distraught than other American prisoners, though he was "deeply moved," over the death of one American, Russ Grissett. Kushner quoted Garwood as saying: "'I've got to get out of here. I told him [Grissett] to follow me and he'd live, but he followed [another soldier] and he's dead.'"
Not even Garwood's three lawyers have disputed the testimony before a five-man jury of Marine officers, all Vietnam veterans.
But they paint the portrait of a victim, not a traitor. John Lowe, his chief attorney, who plans to launch a psychiatric defense in court this week, argues that Garwood was a mentally malleable Marine, emotionally disturbed before he enlisted at 17 to escape reform school and a troubled home life, a poorly trained teen-aged soldier coerced by torture and ultimately driven over the edge and into the arms of the enemy.
He was dropped on his head at birth, his attorneys say. At four, his mother abandoned him. He was raised by his grandmother and his father, Jack Garwood, in a houseful of siblings where it was easy to get lost in the crowd. gFriends in Gaithersburg, Ind., remember the 10th-grade dropout as a shy, timid outsider yearing to be in.
He ran away from home and wound up in a reform school. A Marine recruiter offered salvation in the corps; his father signed the papers and he was off to Vietnam.
So far, testimony at the court-martial hasn't covered Garwood's crucial first year in captivity, when he was purportedly tortured beyond the breaking point. He was shot in the left arm, he says, captured and held prisoner. In 1979, he slipped a note to a Finnish businessman in a Hanoi hotel bar identifying himself as a lost POW who wanted to go home.
The Marines say he signed up with the enemy voluntarily. The Vietnamese government says he chose to stay in Vietnam as a free man.
Garwood supporters and detractors alike wonder why he has been singled out for prosecution when far more serious charges were dropped against other American prisoners in an anguishing, divisive war.
"If I'd done what he'd done, with my college background and training as a Marine officer, I'd be guilty as hell," says Mike Johnson, 38, an Ex-Marine helicopter pilot and decorated two-tour Vietnam veteran who owns a Yamaha dealership Garwood frequents. "But you can't take a 17- or 18-year-old, send him to boot camp, then to Vietnam and expect him to uphold the same level of propriety as someone like me.
"I should be held totally accountable for my actions. But I was six years older [than Garwood] when I went, old enough to remember the notoriety of turncoats from Korea. I'd had the Code of Conduct drilled into my brain for six years, courses in survival training. I don't know what I would have done as a prisoner, but I like to think I could have coped better than Garwood. He was not prepared to cope."
Several of the Marine officers selected for jury duty all said they'd tell a VC guard holding a .45 to their heads to pull the trigger, rather than sign propaganda statements.
"That's bulls ---," says Johson. "yanyone who tells you otherwise hasn't been there."
Garwood makes himself an easy target, crusing Marine Corps Boulevard in his red Chevy. Last February, in the middle of the pressures of the eight-month-long pretrial wrangling, a highway patrolman spied a broken taillight on Garwood's car, pulled him over, smelled alcohol on his breath, gave him a balloon test and arrested him for drunk driving. Then in August came a child-molestation charge, the details of which are sketchy and which Garwood denies. Military judge Robert Switzer accused civilian authorities of grandstanding.
"He's living under a microscope," said Donna Long, 37, local spokesman for the National League of POW/MIA families. Her family took Garwood in when he arrived here 18 months ago from Vietnam, thin and hollow-eyed, friendless, groping for words in a heavy Vietnamese accent, shocked at the miniskirts and the New Morality. "He's on TV or in the papers every day. mHe can't melt into the crowd."
Friends say he is a gentle, quiet man, grateful for any overture of friendship. He rarely alludes to Vietnam and keeps to himself, clinging to an era symbolized by his '56 Chevy, the world he knew before he disappear behind the Bamboo Curtain. He is perplexed, they say, at finding himself in the midst of a post-Vietnam maelstrom. He wakes up at night in cold sweats, screaming nightmares about Vietnam, and under stress lapses into a soft Vietnamese accent.
"He keeps everything inside," says Long. "He is suffering. He is all tore up. After one psychiatric exam he had nightmares and cold sweats for a week."
He tried to commit suicide three times in Vietnam, and psychistrists certify that he remains suicidally depressed, afflicted with a stress syndrome that torments as many as 900,000 Vietnam combat veterans. Until lawyers arranged for a civilian therapist, Garwood had no way to unburden himself.
"He is lost," says Long. "He is trying to find himself. He was a prisoner [of his upbringing], a prisoner for 14 years in Vietnam, and he is still a prisoner. He has never been free."
He moved in with the Longs and their two boys, aged 10 and 15, after a window beside his bunk on base was smashed. He gained 40 pounds, refusing only fish and rice, his diet in Vietnam. He dated briefly, taking a girlfriend to a '50s dance. He slicked his hair back, donned sunglasses, rolled Winstons up in his t-shirt sleeve and danced to "Cherry Pie." Then she moved away.
He stayed up many nights, talking and drinking with Dale Long, the ex-Marine sergeant and two-tour Vietnam veteran who took him in. He did janitorial work at the Yamaha dealership in which Long was part-owner. Then Long, his best friend, was killed in a motorcycle accident in September 1979. l
Before the funeral in Greenville, S.C., he knelt beside the open casket at midnight while Donna Long sobbed outside, and he prayed in Vietnamese. Then Garwood walked out and slammed his fist full force into a brick wall.
He has put 50,000 miles on his Chevy, a gift from Donna Long, in the last year. He spends free time working around the Long house, watching the boys and attending motorcycle races.
Rick Ramos, 48, an ex-Marine sergeant, owner of Rick's Shell station and a nationally ranked drag racer, allows Garwood the use of his tools to work on his car. Ramos overhauled the engine and the transmission.
"It hasn't hurt my business at all to be his friend," says Ramos, whose three daughters sometimes go roller skating with Garwood.
Over his desk on base, where he works as a $511-a-month file clerk, Garwood has tacked up a poster of a Great Dane, a helpless puppy between its legs. "It's Nice to Have a Friend," reads the caption.
Garwood musters for inspection weekdays at 0800 when he's not in court. His dress greens, with Vietnam service ribbons and sharpshooter badge, are pressed sharp. He can see his face in his spit-shined shoes.
On the books, Robert Russell Garwood is still a Marine, albeit one with a life sentence hanging over his head who, if convicted, stands to lose some $140,000 in back pay, now held in escrow.
It's a handsome sum the military wants to avoid paying him, a Navy investigator purportedly told John C. Geill, a former Marine driver in Garwood's unit who testified today. Geill said he told the investigator he didn't think "Bobby would be a deserter." Geill testified the agent said, "'I don't think we could get him on desertion, but he's got a lot of money coming to him and we don't want to pay him. So we'll get him on a fraudulent enlistment charge.'"
If the government doesn't "get him," he could retire from the Marines in about two years, a retired Pfc with 20 years in the service.
Garwood will be 35 on April 1 -- April Fool's Day -- an irony that has not escaped him. Says Garwood with a wry smile: "Chimes right in, don't it?"