When Col. Norman Schlaich, a 28-year Marine Corps veteran, drank too much on the eve of his 49th birthday and climbed over a closed Naval Academy gate one night last weekend, he altered the path of what a week ago was a highly regarded, gifted career.
Schlaich, known as "Dutch," said yesterday he feels sadness and regret for the pain he has caused his family and the school.
"I have been treated more than fairly by the academy and the Marine Corps," he said. "I have told the midshipmen all along that they have to be accountable for their actions, and so must I."
Schlaich, who was relieved of duty Jan. 27, was an academy graduate who began his Marine service as an F-18 pilot in 1973, and rose through the ranks to become deputy commandant of the academy, the school's No. 3 position, three years ago.
He was fired after being caught intoxicated and climbing a closed gate. According to sources familiar with the incident, Schlaich was returning home on foot from downtown Annapolis and headed toward Gate 1, the academy's ceremonial gate, which is closed at night, instead of Gate 3, which remained open but was farther away.
He followed a group of several midshipmen over the closed gate, a minor but frequent infraction of academy rules. A nearby Department of Defense patrol car spotted the group and reported the violation.
As deputy commandant, Schlaich was responsible for administering discipline to students, including evaluating alcohol-related offenses. He was reassigned Monday to the Board for Correction of Naval Records, which reviews applications for corrections to Navy and Marine Corps personnel records.
It is a step down from the high-profile academy post, where he was thought to be a likely candidate to be promoted to general, as two of his recent predecessors had been. Reports of his dismissal from the academy, a place where Marines send only their best with the hope of one day seeing a Marine as superintendent, was met with sadness and regret by some in the corps, where Schlaich was well known and liked.
Some said the punishment seemed too harsh.
But Schlaich said his behavior that night was "unacceptable" and said he felt he left academy Superintendent John R. Ryan with little choice.
"Ryan has a tremendous amount on his plate right now, and I regret deeply that I have added to that," he said. "He had no choice. I worry mostly for my family and what I have put them through."
Through a spokesman, Ryan said he had nothing but the highest respect for Schlaich, a sentiment echoed by many others.
"He wouldn't have been [at the academy] unless he was a very good officer," said Maj. Patrick Gibbons, a Marine Corps spokesman. "Senior officers here think very highly of the colonel."
Schlaich held the key post at a time when the school has worked to curb alcohol-related offenses. School officials say more than 130 students were involved in 143 alcohol-related infractions in 1999, the most recent year for which records are available.
Cmdr. Bill Spann said Thursday the deputy commandant "suffered a single lapse in judgment" as a result of "excessive alcohol consumption." He said Schlaich's post "requires a higher standard of personal behavior."
Academy officials have replaced Schlaich temporarily with Capt. Bruce Bole, formerly the 3rd Battalion officer. The Marine Corps is seeking to fill the post permanently as soon as possible.
"That is a key assignment," Gibbons said. "I imagine they would look around for the right officer," noting that no one had been selected yet.
Retired Gen. Charles Krulak, an academy graduate who retired in 1999 as commandant of the Marine Corps, has worked behind the scenes to get a Marine named superintendent or commandant at the academy, which has yet to happen. Schlaich was the highest-ranking Marine at the academy until his dismissal.
Krulak said his first reaction of the news was "sadness that such an incident would take place."
But he said he believes Ryan acted appropriately in firing Schlaich.
"I'm happy to see we're holding someone accountable for his actions," he said, adding "If I were commandant [of the Marines], I would take the finest colonel in the Marine Corps and send him over there."
Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.