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#1019: A Question of Duty ... Officer destroys career by trying to liberate Haitian prisoners


A Question of Duty 
 How an officer destroyed his career by trying to liberate Haitian      
prisoners.  By Stephen Wrage Newsweek, November 22, 1999 

 ._ When Capt. Lawrence Rockwood of the 10th Mountain Division arrived
in  Haiti in September 1994 along with 20,000 other American troops, he
thought his mission was to keep atrocities from happening. An idealist,
 Rockwood liked to quote Gen. Douglas MacArthur: "The protection of the
 weak and unarmed is the very essence and reason for [a soldier's]
being."Very noble and romantic, but Rockwood's commander, Gen. David
Meade,  had a different notion of this particular mission. Meade was in
charge of the "intervasion" force that had been allowed into Haiti to
oversee the peaceful transfer of power from Haitian strongman Raoul
Cedras to democratically  elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Meade's first priority was  protecting his own troops. The Army
commander was following orders: "force protection"—avoiding
casualties—has become the mantra of the Pentagon brass uncomfortable
with the Army's new peacekeeping role. But it  meant that U.S.
soldiers—mocked as "Ninja Turtles" in their heavy body   armor—had to
stand aside on the first day and helplessly watch as Haitian thugs beat
to death a supporter of Aristide's.  For Rockwood, the Army's passivity
was intolerable. The son, grandson and  great-grandson of military men,
he once studied to be a Roman Catholic priest. His duty to obey his
commander conflicted with his duty to his  conscience. So he decided to
take matters into his own hands: to personally liberate the most
notorious of Haitian prisons, the National Penitentiary.        
Rockwood's defiance of orders cost him his career, and his story, taken
from  interviews and his court-martial record, dramatically illustrates
the dilemma of  a modern peacekeeping Army. As a counterintelligence
officer, Rockwood was supposed to develop informants. But in his first
week in Haiti, his informants began to mysteriously disappear. Reading
intelligence reports—a beheaded body found in a swamp, a mutilated
torture victim spirited out of a local jail at night—Rockwood could  
guess at their fates. Determined to try to save his informants, Rockwood
 lobbied his superiors for permission to inspect the Haitian jails,
particularly the  National Penitentiary, where 85 percent of the inmates
were political  prisoners. Repeatedly rebuffed, he grew anxious, then
angry. He thought his commanders were guilty of "moral cowardice." As a
little boy, Rockwood had been taken to visit a Nazi concentration camp
by his father, an Army Air Force officer in World War II. If he failed
to act, Rockwood feared, he would not be able to face his own children.

 On the evening of Sept. 30, Rockwood prayed by his cot. He wrote a note
to  his superiors: "I am doing something that is clearly legal to stop
something that  is plainly illegal. Action required: All means necessary
to implement the intent of the United Nations and U.S. president intent
on human rights." His  emotions overcame his soldierly discipline.
Pinning an American-flag shoulder  patch on the note, he wrote, "Take
this flag. It is soiled with unnecessary  blood. You cowards can
court-martial my dead body." Rockwood put on his   battle-dress uniform,
strapped on a flak jacket and grabbed a full ammo  pouch and his rifle.
Then he went over the barbed wire into the streets of           

 He became lost. Wandering for an hour in the darkness, he finally
stumbled  across a gate stenciled penitencier national. Surprisingly,
the gate stood ajar.   Rockwood marched in and was quickly surrounded by
eight armed guards. He chambered a round in his rifle and claimed to be
the lead man of a team  coming to inspect the prison. The night warden
of the prison, Maj. Serge  Justafor, appeared, pushing up his shirt to
show a .45-caliber pistol. The   warden ostentatiously pulled back the
hammer on his pistol, and claimed he  could not unlock the prison block.
According to Rockwood, he said, "I'm not responsible for what they do to
each other once I lock them in at night." Rockwood set out on his own
down the hallway to the prison infirmary. As a door closed on him, he
blocked it with his foot. He found 26 people on a filthy concrete floor,
few with even a scrap of cardboard to lie on. Many were  near death. A
flyblown trench along the wall reeked of human waste. Rockwood demanded
to see a list of prisoners. The warden refused. Hoping    to create a
scene, Rockwood told the warden to inform U.S. authorities of his   
presence in the prison. Then he pulled up a chair in the main courtyard
and  waited.  After about three hours, the military attache from the
American  Embassy—alerted by the warden and backed by a unit of troops
waiting   outside—arrived at the prison. Rockwood was escorted back to
his base,  past the sign that read welcome to camp democracy, given a
psychiatric   evaluation and read his rights. His immediate superior,
Col. Frank Bragg, was   furious. "How could you go off on your own like
this?" Bragg demanded. "You had your orders." Rockwood shouted, "I don't
just follow orders. I am   an American officer, not a Nazi officer."
Offered a chance to resign, Rockwood demanded a court-martial. After a
four-day trial in March 1995,he was convicted on a number of charges,
including conduct unbecoming an   officer. He was dismissed from the
 Within a few days of Rockwood's one-man invasion of the National       
Penitentiary in late September, a U.N. inspection team arrived to
protest  human-rights abuses. The U.S. Army took longer to step in,
assuming control  of the prison in early December, two months after the
"intervasion." General Meade did not last long enough in command of the
10th Mountain Division to  sign Rockwood's conviction papers. He retired
within days of Rockwood's  trial. (Meade was interviewed for this story,
but refused to comment.) His successor as ground commander in Haiti,
Gen. James Hill, claimed to havepersonally inspected every prison in
 Rockwood, now a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of
Florida,  clings to the hope that the secretary of the Army will
overturn his conviction.  He signs his e-mail "Captain Lawrence
Rockwood, on extended leave." He  may serve again—as the hero of a
movie. Last year a production company  owned by Steven Spielberg
("Saving Private Ryan") paid Rockwood $475,000 for the rights to his