AWOL from Desert Shield, this mother pays a price

Gordon Livingston

August 21, 1991|By Gordon Livingston

ON AUG. 9, after a five-day court-martial at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, a physician in the Army Reserve, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks. She was convicted on a charge of "desertion to avoid hazardous duty and shirk important service." On Dec. 31, 1990, she had gone AWOL from her unit on the eve of its deployment to the Persian Gulf war.

The all-male panel of seven officers who sentenced her were majors and lieutenant colonels, none of whom had seen service in Saudi Arabia, only one of whom had been in combat. They deliberated 45 minutes to convict her and an additional 1 1/2 hours to decide her punishment.

During the phase of her trial devoted to determining her guilt or innocence, the trial judge refused to allow evidence to be presented on her motives for going AWOL. In fact, as a longtime peace activist, she did so in an effort to persuade her fellow citizens that a war in the Persian Gulf would result in the sacrifice of an undetermined number of lives, military and civilian, and might ignite a nuclear or environmental disaster.

After absenting herself from her unit at Ft. Riley, Kan., Huet-Vaughn spent the month of January, before and after the beginning of the air campaign against Iraq, traveling about the country speaking out against the war. She urged (as did six of seven former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) that sanctions be given a chance to work. She finally surrendered to federal marshals at a rally in Kansas City on Feb. 2, 32 days after she went AWOL. Subsequently, she applied for conscientious objector status; the Army denied this request and remanded her for court-martial.

The military judge decided before the trial began to exclude all testimony concerning her motives as "irrelevant." The defense stipulated that she had received and understood her orders to deploy to Saudi Arabia, but contended that her intent could not ** be separated from the reasons for her refusal. On the rather fine semantic distinction between "intent" and "motive" hung her fate. If she was unable to explain to the court why she had refused to go to the war, there was no hope of an acquittal, since she acknowledged that her decision to leave her unit had been intentional and with an awareness of possible legal consequences.

Stymied in its efforts to present experts on medical ethics, international law or the potential role conflicts of combat physicians, the defense was reduced to the heavily restricted testimony of Huet-Vaughn herself and that of a series of witnesses, including patients, who attested to her good character and dediction to the medical treatment of the poor in her Kansas City family practice.

The government's case was presented by two young captains who didn't have to work very hard, since the facts of

Huet-Vaughn's refusal of duty were undisputed. Their primary task was to object (and be sustained) any time the words "ethics," "morality" or "conscience" were mentioned.

The defense tried. Called to the stand were two doctors who were military academy graduates who had refused service in Vietnam, a founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility (the American arm of the organization which won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize), a professor of international law at the University of Illinois and an epidemiologist recently returned from Iraq where she had gone with a Harvard group to study the continuing catastrophic effects of the bombing on civilians, especially children. None of these witnesses was allowed to testify either to the consequences of the war or the potential ethical conflicts of physician participation.

In the penalty phase of the trial, after she had been convicted, Huet-Vaughn was at last able to present the ethical rationale which had brought her to the decision to refuse wartime service. The most effective witness here was the post chaplain, a Catholic priest who had spent many hours with her and concluded that "her conscience allowed her no other course" than the one she pursued. The officers sitting in judgment were not swayed and found persuasive the prosecution argument that the actions of this doctor constituted a threat to the "discipline and good order" of the U.S. Army. In sentencing her to half of the maximum possible confinement for her offense, perhaps they thought they were being lenient.

When the sentence was announced, Huet-Vaughn's family and supporters in the courtroom appeared more stunned and distraught than she. Her thoughts and attention were for her children, 8, 5, and 3, who were there to hear their mother jailed for her expression of dissent. Before being taken into custody, she was given a couple of hours to bid them farewell.

With the war won, the infrastructure of Iraq reduced to ruins, the victory parades complete, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf bemedaled and retired, do we now want our Army to jail a 40-year-old physician and mother for following her conscience? An appeal is pending; she awaits its outcome at Leavenworth.

Gordon Livingston is a West Point graduate who practices 1/2 psychiatry in Columbia.

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