Green Beret soldier facing charge of cowardice

Interrogator in Iraq says he suffered panic attack after seeing maimed body

November 06, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FORT CARSON, Colo. - Not since the Vietnam War has the Army punished a soldier for being too scared to do his duty.

But tomorrow, Staff Sgt. Georg-Andreas Pogany will appear before a military court here to face charges of cowardice.

The Army says he is guilty of "cowardly conduct as a result of fear" and not performing his duties as an interrogator for a squad of Green Berets in Samarra, Iraq.

But Pogany says he did not run from the enemy or disobey orders. The only thing he is guilty of, he says, is asking for help for a panic attack.

On his second night in Iraq, one month ago, Pogany, 32, saw an Iraqi cut in half by a machine gun. The sight disturbed him so much, he said, that he threw up and shook for hours. His head pounded and his chest hurt.

"I couldn't function," Pogany said Tuesday in his lawyer's office in Colorado Springs, not far from Fort Carson. "I had this overwhelming sense of my own mortality. I kept looking at that body, thinking, `That could be me two seconds from now.'"

Pogany said that when he informed his superior that he was having a panic attack and needed help, he was given two sleeping pills and told to go away. A few days later, Pogany was put on a plane and sent home.

Now he faces a possible court-martial. If convicted, the punishment could range from a reduction in pay to the death penalty.

The last cowardice conviction, according to the Department of Defense, was of Pvt. Michael Gross, who was found guilty of running away from his company in Vietnam in 1968 and sentenced to two years in prison.

Military officials have declined to discuss the details of the case. But Maj. Robert Gowan, spokesman for Special Forces Command in Fort Bragg, N.C., disagreed that a soldier would be stigmatized simply for asking for help, even among battle-hardened Green Berets.

"Special Forces soldiers are mature professionals, and they know that if someone is under stress and asking for help it is important to give it to them," Gowan said.

Military officials emphasized that being scared is not enough to be charged with cowardice. It is when a soldier is frightened and misbehaves because of that fear that the soldier is considered a coward.

On the official charge sheet, dated Oct. 14, Pogany is accused of refusing to perform his duties, which at the time were going out on missions with Green Berets and interrogating captured Iraqis.

The Manual for Courts-Martial defines cowardice as "misbehavior motivated by fear." But it goes on to say that fear is "a natural feeling of apprehension when going into battle."

The Military Judges' Benchbook defines cowardly conduct as "the refusal or abandonment of a performance of duty" before or in the presence of the enemy "as a result of fear."

Eugene R. Fidell, president of the nonprofit National Institute of Military Justice, said: "Fear is an essential element of a cowardice charge, and judges know that fear is an extremely human reaction. We have come a long way from when we shot people for this."

Bartlett J. Carroll Jr., a retired Army colonel who prosecuted cowardice cases during the Vietnam War, said: "It was usually only the most severe cases we went after, like when guys repeatedly refused to get on the helicopters, even after a cool-down period."

Carroll said the occupation in Iraq, with its steady death toll, could foment a new generation of cowardice charges.

"The first Iraq war was 100 hours, and there wasn't enough time to be scared," Carroll said. "But now the guys in Iraq have enough time to dwell on their mortality."

That is exactly what Pogany has been doing as he awaits his hearing.

The Marlboro Lights still tremble in his fingers. The body still bleeds in his dreams.

He remembers that it was midnight on Sept. 29. Pogany was standing in the doorway of a U.S. military compound in Samarra, north of Baghdad. A group of American soldiers dragged the body of an Iraqi past him, he said. The Iraqi had fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a convoy, the soldiers said. The convoy fired back. The results were gruesome.

"From his waistline to his head, everything was missing," Pogany said.

Pogany said he has seen the bodies of people killed in car crashes and that he is not squeamish.

"But nothing could have prepared me for that," he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.