Army finds lay minister lax on duty Soldier sees his sin as celebrity, not sloth

November 09, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

STUTTGART, Germany -- A U.S. Army sergeant from Baltimore who became a minor celebrity in the Persian Gulf war as a popular lay minister was convicted yesterday of disregarding rules and of disrespect to a superior.

But the special court martial also found Robert Wise, 28, innocent of two other charges and imposed a relatively light zTC sentence. He was reduced a rank to a specialist 4 and fined $200.

The sentence will take effect only after a superior officer has reviewed the case and if Sergeant Wise decides not to appeal.

Sergeant Wise said that he has not decided on an appeal, but that in any case the court decision probably meant an end to his military career because it would now be difficult for him to re-enlist when his tour ends in July.

Sergeant Wise said that his religion would remain his priority and that the sentence could even be a blessing in that it would allow him to concentrate on preaching.

"First I'm a man of God. That won't change whether I'm a specialist or a sergeant tomorrow," Sergeant Wise said.

His mother, the Rev. Virginia Wise, pastor of West Baltimore's Rose of Sharon Baptist Church, said that while she thought the verdict unfair, "We thank the Lord that it went as well as it did."

Sergeant Wise was charged with leaving his communications van without authorization; leaving his base to eat lunch; being disrespectful to a superior officer; failing to stow his M-16 rifle properly; and failing to go directly home after a doctor gave him sick leave.

The case drew national attention because Sergeant Wise had become widely known for his popular desert services and because of worries that the charges were racially motivated. But investigations by the Defense Department, two Army units and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People did not reveal any racial bias in the charges.

During the two-day trial, Sergeant Wise and his lawyer tried to prove that the acts he was being charged with were in fact common practice in the field and that he was being unfairly singled out.

Although the judge who presided over the court martial said Sergeant Wise was innocent of the charges relating to the rifle and the sick leave, he sided with the prosecution in finding him guilty of disrespect and of not following to the letter certain military regulations.

The prosecution, for example, pointed out that although Sergeant Wise may have left his post in Saudi Arabia for a good cause -- to repair downed phone lines -- he had not made every effort to let his superiors know of his actions. And although many people ate meals off base, he was not supposed to have done so while on duty and thus violated a unit rule.

Sergeant Wise was able to present a spotless record to the trial judge, as well as several commendations from superiors. Soldiers also testified as character witnesses, saying his preaching in Germany and Saudi Arabia had improved morale.

In Saudi Arabia, Sergeant Wise spent his time off-duty from the 51st Signal Battalion holding services and playing gospel music on his portable keyboard. Homesick soldiers praised his "Field Med House of Prayer," and several credited him with helping them cope with the stresses in the desert.

Shortly after reports of the services were published in several U.S. newspapers, Sergeant Wise was ordered not to preach on the grounds that he was not a certified lay preacher. The Army also said it wasnot certifying lay preachers in the desert.

Sergeant Wise maintains that this preaching ban and the charges were motivated by jealous Army chaplains who needed worshipers in order to get good evaluations but lacked his rapport and charisma that drew 80 to 100 to his services.

Army officials say the controversy over the preaching and the charges are unrelated.

Capt. Debbie Linton, who heads the 51st Signal Battalion, said Sergeant Wise's heart was not in the military and this was why he took shortcuts in military procedure.

"He's a very nice man, but a bad sergeant. I didn't want him leading soldiers. He didn't have the commitment," Captain

Linton said.

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