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#1425: A Question of Duty (fwd)



 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 Port-au-Prince.

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 s!
ee 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 Army.

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 have personally inspected every prison in Haiti.

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 story.

Wrage is a professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy.

© 1999 Newsweek, Inc.