WASHINGTON - John Riggs spent 39 years in the Army, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery during the Vietnam War and working his way up to become a three-star general entrusted with creating a high-tech Army for the 21st century.
But on a spring day last year, Riggs was told by senior Army officials that he would be retired at a reduced rank, losing one of his stars because of infractions considered so minor that they were not placed in his official record.
He was given 24 hours to leave the Army. He had no parade in review, no rousing martial music, no speeches or official proclamations praising his decades in uniform, the trappings that normally herald a high-level military retirement.
Instead, Riggs went to a basement room at Fort Myer, Va., and signed some mandatory forms. Then a young sergeant mechanically presented him with a flag and a form letter of thanks from President Bush.
"That's the coldest way in the world to leave," Riggs, 58, said in a drawl that betrays his rural roots in southeast Missouri. "It's like being buried and no one attends your funeral."
So what cost Riggs his star?
His Pentagon superiors said he allowed outside contractors to perform work they were not supposed to do, creating "an adverse command climate."
But some of the general's supporters believe the motivation behind his demotion was politics. Riggs was blunt and outspoken on a number of issues and publicly contradicted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld by arguing that the Army was overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan and needed more troops.
"They all went bat s- - when that happened," recalled retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, a one-time Pentagon adviser who ran reconstruction efforts in Iraq in the spring of 2003. "The military part of [the defense secretary's office] has been politicized. If [officers] disagree, they are ostracized and their reputations are ruined."
A senior officer's loss of a star is a punishment seldom used, and then usually for the most serious offenses, such as dereliction of duty or command failures, adultery or misuse of government funds or equipment.
Over the past several decades, generals and admirals faced with far more serious official findings - scandals at the Navy's Tailhook Convention, the Air Force Academy and Abu Ghraib prison, for example - have continued in their careers or retired with no loss of rank.
Les Brownlee, who was then acting Army secretary and who ordered that Riggs be reduced in rank, said he stands by the demotion. "I read the [Army inspector general's] report and made that judgment. I happen to think it was that serious. Maybe I have a higher standard for these things," Brownlee said in an interview. "I still believe it was the right decision."
Rumsfeld's office had no comment for this story, referring all questions to the Army, which issued a statement.
The two contracting infractions "reflected negatively on Lt. Gen. Riggs's overall leadership and revealed an adverse command climate," the Army statement said. "Based on the review of the investigation and Lt. Gen. Riggs's comments, the Acting Secretary of the Army [Brownlee] concluded that Lt. Gen. Riggs did not serve satisfactorily in the grade of lieutentant general."
Garner and 40 other Riggs supporters - including an unusually candid group of retired generals - are trying to help restore his rank.
But even his most ardent supporters concede that his appeal has little chance of succeeding and that an act of Congress might be required.
From the ranks
Riggs' rise to three-star general was heady stuff for a man who left the family's cotton farm in Missouri and enlisted in the Army in 1965, the same year America deployed combat troops to Vietnam. After three years as a soldier, Riggs went through Officer Candidate School and soon was piloting a twin-rotor Chinook above the central highlands of Vietnam.
On March 17, 1971, Riggs flew the lumbering, troop-carrying helicopter on a voluntary medevac mission to a base at Phu Nhon which had been under heavy attack from a battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers, according to Army records. On his first approach to the base he was forced back by enemy fire, but he tried another flight path and was able to set down on a small and dusty landing zone.
The young officer flew out 59 wounded soldiers, 30 of whom "probably would have died if Captain Riggs and his crew had not acted as they did," said Riggs' citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross, a top medal awarded for "exceptionally valorous actions."
After the war, Riggs worked his way up through the ranks in the Army, serving in Korea and Germany as well as a stint with NATO headquarters in Brussels. He commanded troops from the platoon level to the First U.S. Army, which is based in Georgia and is responsible for training National Guard and Reserve troops east of the Mississippi.