Austin S. Stockman said he believed he was "striking a blow for freedom" last year when, as a 22-year-old Army private stationed in Berlin, he tried to smuggle an East German family across the border in the trunk of a Volvo sedan.
"I thought it was a heroic act, a chance to do something exciting and help people escape from behind the Iron Curtain," said Stockman, whose mission was foiled by suspicious Soviet army officials who arrested the family and detained him for 12 hours at a border checkpoint.
Unfortunately for Stockman, the U.S. Army didn't consider him a hero. After military and State Department negotiators secured his release, the Army court-martialed Stockman, sentenced him to serve six months at hard labor, stripped him of all pay and benefits and booted him out of the service with a bad conduct discharge.
This morning an Army Court of Military Review in Northern Virginia is scheduled to consider Stockman's appeal, which lawyers on both sides say poses unusual questions about U.S. foreign policy. Army lawyers say they believe Stockman is the first American soldier to be court-martialed on a charge of trying to smuggle someone out of a Communist bloc country.
The circumstances in the case of Pfc. Stockman could be taken from a John Le Carre spy novel. "I felt I was doing the right thing," said Stockman, who acknowledges he broke Army rules by helping a doctor, his wife and his 5-year-old son try to flee from East Berlin. "Sometimes I think I would have preferred being handed over to the Communists ," said Stockman, now a factory worker in a small Delaware town. "At least I wouldn't have been punished by somebody who tells me they believe in the same things I do."
Stockman, a married soldier who had left his wife and infant daughter at home, admits his motivations weren't entirely humanitarian. He and a second soldier arrested with him, Pfc. David F. Pierce, said they had been promised either $450 or $4,500--neither was certain which sum--had the smuggling succeeded.
"Sure the money was nice, but that wasn't the primary factor," Stockman said. "I thought that if I was caught I would be turned over to the East Germans and sent to a work camp and then I could have had a chance to escape and be a hero." Pierce, who was court-martialed after Stockman, received a lesser sentence and no punitive discharge. He has left the Army and is living in Detroit.
Although the Army keeps no statistics on smuggling attempts involving American soldiers, military police in Berlin say about two incidents every year are detected. "I'd say in these cases the primary motivation is probably adventure, a certain amount of patriotism and, of course, the money's nice," said Maj. Patrick Crow, a lawyer who served as deputy staff judge advocate in Berlin from 1979-82.
Until Stockman's arrest on April 25, 1982, soldiers caught in smuggling attempts were not court-martialed. Most were subjected to an Article 15 proceeding, military parlance for a nonjudicial punishment that can involve a reduction in pay or benefits. According to Sgt. James M. Welker, a military policeman who testified at Stockman's court-martial, a more severe punishment was meted out to Stockman and Pierce partly because Army officials in Berlin "firmly believe that, based on past Soviet reaction, the Soviet Union might attempt another blockade of the city because of acts of exfiltration" by American servicemen.
"They're making an example of this guy," says Capt. Peter Huntsman, Stockman's military lawyer. "A court-martial and bad conduct discharge follows you around the rest of your life. I don't think the Army should call someone a criminal just for obeying 30 years of national policy and helping people escape from Communism."
Stockman is, in his lawyer's words, "a successor to the bold Minuteman of Lexington and Concord" who was trying to help a family escape "the godless Communist tyranny of East Germany." While he may have violated Army regulations barring GIs from transporting persons who lack proper documents, Huntsman argues Stockman was obeying superceding international law embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees people the right to seek asylum in other countries.
That, according to government lawyers, is not the issue. "Our basic position is that while we don't condone the emigration policies of East Germany, we don't want our GIs involved in exfiltration. Army regulations are very clear on that point," said Capt. Gary Hoffman, a military prosecutor. He claims Stockman was motivated by a combination of "machismo and greed.
"Our military forces are in a very precarious position in Berlin, dependent on access to the autobahn," he continued. "The last thing we want to do is trigger another blockade. What if Stockman had had a gun and decided to shoot it out at the border? . . . What he did endangered that family, which was probably sent to prison."
Army officials in Berlin say they don't know what happened to the family Stockman was trying to help, but they say it's likely they have been imprisoned.
Until his court-martial last June, Stockman, the son of a Delaware mechanic who joined the Army just out of high school, had an unblemished record.
During his court-martial Stockman testified he learned of smuggling activity involving American GIs after his roommate was involved in a botched attempt. Before his roommate was disciplined, Stockman said, he introduced him to two Germans involved in smuggling.
"At first we would just talk," said Stockman, who met the Germans eight or nine times at night in train stations, subways or their apartment, located about 15 minutes from his Berlin barracks.
In February 1982, when the two Germans asked him if he wanted to participate in a smuggling attempt, Stockman agreed and recruited Pierce to help.
Court records show that two weeks before the smuggling attempt, the Germans left a 1973 metallic blue Volvo registered in Stockman's name outside the barracks. The back seat had been cut out for a hiding place, to be used by Dr. Christian-Dieter Mai, 33; his wife Monika Mai, 30, and their son, Christian. The car was equipped with hydraulic shock absorbers to conceal the extra weight.
Stockman and Pierce memorized the checkpoints and rest stops along the autobahn. The morning before the smuggling was scheduled, a Saturday, he and Pierce drove the 110 miles along the highway to Hanover, spent the night in a hotel and did some sightseeing. At 9 p.m. the next night, they arrived at a prearranged rest stop along the autobahn, spotted a small green car, and pulled in front of it.
"The Mais jumped out of the green car and into ours and then we played a cassette tape for them in German, which contained instructions of how to get into the trunk," Stockman recalled. "Just before he closed the lid he shook our hand and said 'Thank you' in English."
"The worst part was when we pulled back onto the autobahn and discovered traffic was backed up, nearly all the way to Berlin. Pierce looked at me and said: 'We're not going to make it.' "
They didn't. An hour later when Stockman pulled into Soviet checkpoint Drewitz, less than a mile from the American sector, they were stopped by Soviet guards who wanted permission to search the car. Army officials say they believe the Soviets had been tipped off.
After more than three hours of negotiations between American and Soviet officials, the trunk was opened by American military police. "They told me if I didn't hand over the key they were going to use a crowbar and that was just too bizarre so I gave them the key," Stockman said.
The Mais were lying on an Army blanket in the trunk. After they identified themselves as East German citizens, they were turned over to the Soviets. "I couldn't look at them," Stockman said. "Dr. Mai just stared with this dazed look, the little boy had been crying and Mrs. Mai was screaming hysterically, 'Nein, Nein.' "
"I'd be a fool to say I wasn't scared," recalled Stockman, who wants the appeals court to allow him to return to active duty. "All I could think of was, well, here it all goes. But I really never thought it would end up like this."