The parents of slain Pfc. Barry Winchell are considering suing the Army for failing to protect their son from anti-gay harassment.
In an interview yesterday, Pat and Wally Kutteles said military officials at Fort Campbell, Ky., did not take sufficient precautions to prevent Winchell's July 5 beating. Winchell, who was rumored to be gay, was attacked by another soldier as he was sleeping.
Pat Kutteles said commanders at the 101st Airborne Division tolerated a four-month harassment campaign against her son in clear violation of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays, a standard which has come under mounting criticism in recent weeks.
"What it's shown us is that the military is not a safe place to send our children to," she said. "I don't believe in lawsuits, in everybody suing other people, but it's the last resort."
The couple's comments came a day after Army Spc. Justin R. Fisher, 26, pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and lying to military investigators in connection with Winchell's death. Fisher, who was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison, wiped blood off the bat that Pvt. Calvin N. Glover used to kill Winchell. Prosecutors had said Fisher, who was Winchell's barracks mate, had encouraged Glover to attack Winchell in retaliation for an earlier fight. Glover, 18, was convicted last month of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
"Fisher's as guilty as Glover as far as we're concerned," Wally Kutteles said, noting that Fisher had taunted Glover over the fight. "Telling him, 'You got beat up by a fag.' He knew he was getting him stirred up."
At his trial, witnesses testified that Glover had provoked Winchell into a fight two days before the beating. Winchell won the fistfight easily, and Glover attacked the 21-year-old infantryman with a baseball bat Fisher supplied.
Under court-martial rules, Fisher's plea agreement is immediately subject to an appeal process in which the conviction is subject to a review by the convening authority, Maj. Gen. Robert Clark. Clark can lessen the penalty but not increase it.
Pat Kutteles called Fisher's plea bargain "a travesty." Her son's stepfather argued that military officials were afraid of what an extended trial would reveal about their conduct at Fort Campbell.
"It would make the Army look bad," Wally Kutteles said. "They wanted to get this over with."
But Lt. Col. Bill Wheelehan, an Army spokesman, said prosecutors were simply focused on obtaining Fisher's conviction.
"He's been convicted for his part in the beating death of a fellow soldier and it is a felony count that will follow him forever," Wheelehan said, adding that Fisher helped prosecutors in their case against Glover. "His cooperation was crucial in the conviction of the actual killer."
Winchell's death has reignited the debate over gays in the military, with politicians including presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley saying they support gays serving openly in the military.
On orders from Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, all of the military services are in the final stages of internal reviews of how they are applying the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and how they will incorporate the added imperative, "don't harass."
Wheelehan said the Pentagon is emphasizing its opposition to the harassment of gays in light of Winchell's death. But Winchell's parents said anti-gay sentiment still flourishes at military installations like Fort Campbell, where soldiers made jokes about their son's death.
Pat Kutteles noted that Winchell's platoon sergeant had asked her son about his sexual orientation but dropped the subject when Winchell denied he was gay. At Glover's trial, the sergeant testified he did nothing to stop the anti-gay epithets other soldiers hurled at Winchell. "Everybody was having fun," Staff Sgt. Michael Kleifgen said.
"Nobody in the Army or chain of command stopped it," Kutteles said of her son's harassment, adding that she and her husband held Clark responsible as commander of both the 101st Airborne and Fort Campbell. "He is in command. The responsibility is his."
The Kansas City, Mo., couple said they also blamed Cohen for failing to adequately implement the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, adding that they wrote to him in October on the subject but that he has not responded.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigly, a military spokesman, said Cohen thought it was "legally more prudent" not to respond to the letter until after the court-martial proceedings had finished.
Recalling how her son had gone from tinkering with model airplanes as a child to working with helicopters and winning awards for marksmanship, Pat Kutteles said she feels compelled to hold the military responsible for the harassment Winchell endured during his service.
"It's devastating," she said. "I thought he was so happy. He seemed to be achieving so much."
CAPTION: Pfc. Barry Winchell was killed in bed July 5 after anti-gay harassment.