But for time and circumstance Robert Russell Garwood might have been feted by an exultant nation and a sea of yellow ribbons. But the Marine Pfc. did not pull embassy duty in Tehran. He was sucked into the deadly whirlpool of the Vietnam war.
Now, convicted of collaborating with the enemy while a prisoner in Vietnam in the late 1960s and of assaulting a fellow GI, he awaits sentencing at Camp Lejeune, a remote Marine base in North Carolina. His case seems certain to be appealed.
Though facing a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, the forfeiture of $147, 000 in back pay, and a dishonorable discharge, Garwood is still proud to be a marine, he says.
Legal experts view Garwood's conviction as a successful test of the code of conduct adopted by the armed forces in 1955. Under the code, US military personnel are required to restrict cooperation with their captors to the provision of their name, rank, serial number, and date of birth.
Although other prisoners of war (POWs), including officers, are known to have collaborated with the enemy in Vietnam, Garwood is the only one to be tried by court martial, a fact bitterly resented by his family. Charges similar to the ones Garwood has faced were to have been brought against eight POWs in 1973. But they were dropped on White House insistence after one of those involved, a Marine Corps sergeant, committed suicide.
Nine POWs who testified against Garwood in the 2 1/2 month trial said that he dressed as a North Vietnamese soldier, wore so-called Ho Chi Minh sandals cut out of automobile tires, and toted a Soviet- made AK-47 assault rifle. They alleged that besides interrogating, guarding, and informing on prisoners he tried to indoctrinate them and urged them to collaborate.
The defense claimed that Garwood was incapable of appreciating the criminality of his conduct because he had been driven insane by torture and deprivation.
The Marine private, who did not testify in his own behalf, told defense psychiatrists that he lost his way while driving a jeep near Danang on Sept. 28, 1965.
He said that he found himself on a deserted stretch of beach surrounded by the Viet Cong and that after an exchange of fire, in which two guerrillas were killed and he was wounded, he was overpowered and marched away to a distant jungle prison camp.
After twice trying to escape, he was beaten and imprisoned in a bamboo cage, he said. And he was fed only two rice balls daily and exposed to the debilitating environment, he told the psychiatrists.
"He suffered . . . the kind of experience no human being, on matter how resistant or strong, could survive without suffering emotional injuries," claimed a defense psychiatrists, Dr. Emmanuel Tanay.
According to Garwood, he was badly wounded in a B-52 strike as he was being moved up the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1969. After lengthy hospital treatment he was successively imprisoned at the Son Tay and Yen Bai POW camps.
Sent to a Europeans-only hotel in Hanoi to buy black market goods for guards at Yen Bai in February 1979, he dropped a note in the lap of Ossi Rakhonen, a Finnish World Bank Official. "I am an American," it read. "Are you interested?" He returned to the United States some weeks later.
According to his defense team Garwood had been a victim long before he was subjected to the abuse of the Viet Cong.
Dropped on his head shortly after he was born on April 1, 1947 in Adams, Ind. , he was abandoned by his mother four years later and brought up by his father and stepmother.A poor boy who wore worn clothes, he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. Declared a juvenile delinquent by his father after he had twice run away from home, he was packed off to a detention home. To escape its confines he joined the Marine Corps in 1963.
Whether or not the five-man jury of Marine Corps officers -- all decorated Vietnam veterans -- were moved by the defense's recounting of Garwood's unhappy childhood, they clearly concluded that his collaboration had been a matter of choice rather than coercion.