COX Newspapers Washington Bureau

Soldier's Career In Limbo After Speaking Out and Confusion Over Status

Cox News Service
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

When Sgt. Marc Guzman was ordered to Iraq, he told a general that he and his fellow soldiers wanted rifles and some training. He says it wrecked his military career.

Today Guzman is stuck in a kind of military limbo at Fort Hood, Texas. Although trained in military intelligence and given a top-secret security clearance, he spent most of the last year cleaning toilets — punishment, he says, for confronting higher-ups about the weapons and training.

He is also being punished for allegedly going AWOL, although no one in the Army can find the orders they say they gave him to report to Fort Hood or explain why no one missed him for 14 months. And while the 34-year-old has abandoned his plans for a military career, the army doesn't want to discharge him.

For its part, the Army blames Guzman for his troubles. While acknowledging missteps by the military bureaucracy, Maj. Anna R. Friederich-Maggard, an Army spokeswoman, said Guzman did not show initiative in trying to correct these errors. Instead, he took advantage of the Army's mistakes. she said.

It wasn't supposed to have turned out this way. A career soldier, the Army gave Guzman generally good marks in his first seven years.

But in 2004, while stationed at Fort Meade, Md., the Army picked the guitar-player to perform with a singing group on a tour of military bases. After landing in Kuwait in May, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who would become famous for his report on abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, decided to have the soldiers perform in Iraq.

This posed a problem for Guzman. Although ordered into a combat zone, he said he and the ten other soldiers were sharing two rifles.

Taguba, who has since retired and has declined to be interviewed for this story, heard the soldiers were balking and met with them on May 24. It did not go well.

When Taguba asked if anyone had any concerns, Guzman said the men and women were not properly prepared to enter a combat zone. Others in the group recalled Taguba responded by calling them "sorry soldiers." Sgt. Daphne Cooper, one of the performers, said the general "spoke to us as if we were all ——bags."

But even when Taguba told Guzman he "shouldn't be wearing those stripes," the sergeant did not back down.

With the exception of Guzman, Taguba then sent the group into Iraq. Guzman was ordered to write the general an apology and then was sent back to Fort Meade. Taguba also issued the sergeant a letter of reprimand because of Guzman's "disruptive attitude, lack of professionalism, and unwillingness to do [his] duty."

In fact, witnesses say Guzman never refused to go to Iraq. Spc. John Barrow, in a written statement collected by Guzman, said the sergeant, "was at no time disrespectful to [General] Taguba."

When he learned of the reprimand, Guzman said, "I was pretty upset. If something's wrong, you are obligated to point it out. It just blew me away. It was pure nastiness."

Guzman appealed to the Army to have the reprimand removed and, still smarting from the incident, wrote a letter to Taguba that, while outwardly respectful, contained consecutive sentences whose initial letters spelled out an obscenity.

Guzman soon got another surprise. The soldiers said that Taguba had warned them in the May encounter that he "could bring them back to Iraq." On Sept. 28, 2004, Guzman was ordered to Fort Hood, Texas, to join a Louisiana National Guard unit headed for Iraq.

Guzman's actual orders were prepared by the Human Resources Command in Alexandria, Va. There, the request by the National Guard for someone with a military intelligence specialty landed on the desk of Master Sgt. Shawn Jaracz.

Jaracz said in an interview that Guzman came up as the best candidate in the process of trying to meet the National Guard request. However, James Klimaski, Guzman's attorney, said that when he interviewed Jaracz, the sergeant said that sending Guzman to Iraq was directed "by pay grades higher than me." Jaracz emphatically denied saying any such thing.

Whatever the reason for being sent to the National Guard, it was clear that Guzman was very angry about the letter of reprimand.

"He told the [National Guard unit] he was not deploying until he got these charges taken care of," said Lt. Col. Pete Schneider, a National Guard spokesman. The Louisiana Guard unit, in turn, told the Army that, rather than take a disgruntled soldier into combat, it would make do without Guzman.

Schneider said Guzman was told to go on 30 days' leave and when he returned to Fort Hood there would be a "follow-on assignment" waiting for him.

In an e-mail, Jaracz told Guzman the new assignment would be with a brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, which, though based at Fort Hood, was also about to deploy to Iraq.

Guzman said that aside from that e-mail, he had no actual orders assigning him to the 4th Infantry Division. And he said that he was told by his new unit that, without orders, it could not accept him.

The army insists Guzman was given orders but, despite repeated requests from a reporter, neither the Army nor the National Guard has been able to turn up a copy.

Guzman waited at Fort Hood for more than a week without his dilemma being resolved.

"In my frustration, I asked, 'What am I supposed to do?'" Guzman recalled. "To which they said, 'Whatever you want but not here.'" Guzman said he was then told to go home to Sacramento and await further orders by a sergeant. Because those who dealt with Guzman are no longer at Fort Hood, the Army says it is unsure of what Guzman was told.

Once home, Guzman, upset about his disintegrating military career, started going to nearby Travis Air Force Base for psychological counseling. According to medical records when counselors called the Army to check Guzman's status, they were told he was "present for duty."

Which was why it came as a shock in May 2006 when Guzman, who said he had repeatedly called the Army to determine his status, was told by the deserter hotline he was now considered AWOL.

A greater shock awaited him when he flew back to Fort Hood on June 15, 2006. As proof that Guzman was AWOL, the Army gave him a copy of a letter to his parents that was supposedly sent in March 2005, warning their son was missing.

In fact, army spokesman Friederich-Maggard acknowledged that the letter was not sent until a year later and that the Army backdated documents in Guzman's file even though it did not realize he was missing until 2006. The spokesman said the backdating was done because it would more accurately reflect the entire time that the Army thought Guzman was missing.

Guzman hired Klimaski, a civilian lawyer based in Washington, D.C., to help him but it did little good. The Army barred Klimaski from representing Guzman at the hearing on October 2006 that found the sergeant guilty of being AWOL.

The army then decided it should be repaid the salary Guzman had collected when he was waiting in Sacramento even though it did not actually declare him AWOL until 2006. In May 2006, the Army simply stopped paying Guzman, saying he must repay his salary while he was supposedly AWOL. Over the last 10 months, the Army has taken all but an average of $130 per month.

But paid or not, the Army blames Guzman for his problems. "Soldiers need to take the initiative to ask questions and seek resolutions," said Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, an Army spokesman. "We hold our soldiers to a high standard of accountability and responsibility."