By Gerry Goldshine
Most people, when they hear the expression “an officer and a gentleman” think of a schmaltzy 1980’s movie Richard Gere and Debra Winger. When I received my commission, as an Infantry Second Lieutenant through Army OCS – Officer Candidate School, those words held special significance for my fellow graduates and me. By longstanding tradition, an officer did not lie, cheat or steal; their word was their bond. Most every officer held those obligations as sacrosanct. Without the unimpeachable integrity of one’s character, how can an officer lead men and women under fire, in combat? To be sure, military leadership entails far more than just character, but without belief, no one will follow. I mention this, as it is central to the following story.
I’m going to need to set the Wayback Machine to late summer of 1978 and Ft. Lewis, Washington. Six months earlier, the Army had granted me a transfer from the Infantry to the Military Police and I had just been promoted to First Lieutenant. Though it called for a Captain, I was given command of the Military Police Traffic Section.
For most soldiers, there is usually no such thing as an eight hour day nor is there overtime. You worked until the task or mission was completed. Officers, particularly junior officers like me, were expected to be the first ones in and the last ones to leave. In order to familiarize myself with all the duties and responsibilities that went along with the new job, I was regularly putting in fifteen-hour workdays.
I had been reviewing accident reports and it was well after dark before I realized everyone else in the section had call it a day hours earlier. Back then, base security was amazingly lax compared to nowadays and there were many unmanned gates, through which the public was able to enter or leave Fort Lewis unhindered. On this particular night, I headed out Northgate Road, which was a two-lane road that cut through an undeveloped heavily wooded training area on the north side of the post. Looking at the tall evergreen pines during the day, you wouldn’t have guessed that you were on a military reservation. At night, it was a very dark and depending on traffic, could be quite desolate. I was planning to grab something to eat in the small suburb of Lakewood, just outside the unmanned gate, before heading home to my apartment in nearby Steilacoom.
No sooner had I turned onto Northgate Road, than I noticed the car ahead of me suddenly slow down only to increase speed seconds later. Then, as I watched in horror, this car abruptly swerved into the opposite lane, forcing an oncoming car onto the shoulder and missing a head-on collision with it by mere inches. When the car did the same thing again only moments later, I recalled reading somewhere, the lights of oncoming car often drew drunk drivers to them, much like moths; all too frequently, they steered right into the oncoming vehicle. The car ahead of me appeared to be doing exactly that. Though I was thoroughly lacking police street experience, I could clearly see that a serious crash was all but inevitable.
What in Sam Hell was I supposed to do? I was in my own vehicle, a bright yellow Toyota pickup, with no way to contact the military or civilian police. Cell phones were still the in the realm of science fiction or the very wealthy. There were no payphones or emergency assistance phones anywhere close. The likelihood that an MP on patrol would drive by was nonexistent. While I was considering my options, he narrowly missed hitting a third car, forcing it onto the shoulder before he swerved back across the road onto the opposite shoulder and nearly spun out in the process. However, as luck would have it, he still managed to continue on his way.
Feeling that I had an obligation to do something, I flashed my high beams on and off a couple of times and then honked my horn. To my utter astonishment, the vehicle quickly pulled to the shoulder and stopped just a couple hundred feet short of the exit from the post. I quickly scribbled down the car’s description and license number on a piece of paper lying on the seat next to me. Perhaps I was bordering on the overdramatic; I figured if they found me dead along the roadside, they would have some clue as to who did it. At least I was wearing my fatigue uniform and had my brand new Military Police badge hanging from the button of my left shirt pocket.
As I walked up to the driver’s door, my heart was nervously hammering away. I kept thinking I was doing an incredibly stupid thing but continued on to make contact with the driver. He was attired in civilian clothing, had a look on his face that I would come to know all too well in the ensuing years; dazed, almost to the point of stupefaction and his eyes were bloodshot, watery and unfocused. Well, I was all in at this point, as they say in poker.
“Good evening sir. I’m Lieutenant Goldshine, Ft. Lewis Military Police. How are you? Is everything okay?”
“I’m fine…just fine. Why?”
So far so good.
“Well, you seemed to be having some problems maintaining control of your car. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t sick or something.”
“Oh, well thanks but I’m fine.”
“Uh huh. So have you had anything to drink tonight?” I asked, though by then I could clearly smell the odor of intoxicants on his breath.
In an instant, his attitude went from cautious to belligerent.
“Yeah, I have been drinking but so what? I ain’t in your Army, Lootenant, so you don’t have any jurisdiction over me.”
That said, he put his car in gear and drove off. I decided I had pushed my luck far enough. Within seconds, he was off the base and I started looking for a payphone. By the time I found one, the errant driver was long out of my sight. I called the Pierce County Sheriff, who had jurisdiction of the unincorporated area outside that part of the post. I identified myself and gave them what information I had. The Military Police had an excellent working relationship with the surrounding police departments and the desk sergeant I spoke with told me he’d have someone call my office in the morning to let me know if they found the person. He said he would also notify Washington State Patrol for me. I had done all I could and headed for home and a frozen dinner.
The next morning, I arrived at my office building earlier than usual, just before 6:00. SFC -Sergeant First Class – John D. Commons, the Traffic NCOIC – Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge – had already been at work for about a half hour. NCOICs do that sort of thing.
SFC Commons, who had been in the Army longer than I’d been alive, came to the United States from Ireland as a child and still had a touch of Irish brogue to his speech. It made him all that more intimidating when he was pissed-off. He graciously allowed me to think I would be running things and I respectfully deferred to him on most matters, for among his many duties, was keeping the OIC – me – from making stupid mistakes. Far be it for me to change that dynamic.
“Lieutenant, I took a curious call from the Pierce County Sheriff desk sergeant right after I got in.”
I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was not pleased but open to discussion. SFC Commons also had a well-deserved reputation for blistering the hide off errant Lieutenants, without a second thought.
“Would you like to tell me about what you did last night, sir?”
So, I told him what had transpired and after mulling it over for a bit, SFC Commons rendered his verdict.
Deliberately thickening his brogue to emphasize the point, he told me, “As long as you don’t be making a habit of looking for this kind of shit, Lieutenant, I’m okay with what you did. That said, sir, don’t do it again. I have enough gray hair.”
Of course, the inevitable question about what to do regarding the whole incident was on my mind and I hesitated to ask him but I didn’t have much of a choice.
“Sergeant Commons, seeing as how I’m new to this whole Military Police business and never done anything like this before, could you show me what I need to do to write this up?”
He rolled his eyes, as if he was seeking Divine assistance from above and then grinned at me.
“At least you’re smart enough to admit you don’t know shit from Shinola, sir. I can work with that.”
Having won a modicum of his respect by my admission of ignorance, he guided me through the process of filing a complaint with the Federal District Magistrate, who was responsible for adjudicating all traffic matters on the base. With Commons help, I was able to confirm the identity of the driver from his license photo, which we obtained from the Washington Department of Motor Vehicles. We also discovered that he had a prior conviction for DWI two years earlier. I made sure to write a very detailed report focusing on my observations of the suspect’s driving and physical signs of intoxication since I had no evidence of his blood alcohol level. A couple of months later, I received a subpoena to appear in Federal Court before the District Magistrate.
The Ft. Lewis Magistrate Court operated in a similar fashion to Municipal Traffic Court. There were no lawyers present; each side would testify, offer evidence or present witnesses. The Magistrate can and often does ask questions of each party during testimony. At the conclusion, he would consider all the facts of the case and make a determination of guilt or innocence. Since this was going to be my first time in court, I was a tad nervous. SFC Commons, as well as some of the MPs who worked for me in the Traffic Section, told me what to expect and helped me prepare my testimony.
Showing up in blue jeans and a tee shirt is not the best way to impress a Federal Magistrate; telling him that he has no jurisdiction because you are a civilian is almost a sure bet to get on his bad side. The Judge quickly disabused the defendant of any mistaken notions he might have had about the jurisdiction of either the Military Police or the Federal Magistrate in this matter.
After I testified, the only question the Judge had was, had I given the defendant any Field Sobriety Tests. I explained that given the circumstances, I was not able to do give any roadside tests. Next the defendant testified and was brief and succinct.
“I wasn’t drunk and I wasn’t driving the way he said I was. He’s got no evidence.”
The Magistrate smiled and then asked, “Had you been drinking?”
“Well, yeah, I had a couple beers but I wasn’t drunk.”
“How many beers had you consumed?”
It had not dawned on this rocket scientist that he had pretty much torpedoed his whole case.
“I don’t know…a couple of beers”
“How many was it? Two? More than two?”
“I guess it was two. Sure, two beers. I know I wasn’t drunk and I think he’s lying about the way I was driving.”
It quickly became clear to everyone in the courtroom that was precisely the wrong thing to say. The Magistrate bristled, now visibly angered; he spoke with a clipped tone.
“Why would the Lieutenant be lying about the way you were driving that night?”
Clueless about the world of hurt about to descend upon him, the defendant haughtily replied, “I don’t know. Maybe he has a quota or something. All I know is that I wasn’t drunk and I wasn’t swerving all over the road the way he said I was.”
The Judge paused almost as if he was trying to collect himself before speaking again.
“Mr. Dumbasarock. This Military Policeman is a Commissioned Officer in the United States Army. Aside from the fact that he testified under oath, you should know that Commissioned Officers do not lie. Since you have admitted to drinking at least two beers, I am more than inclined to believe you were driving just the way the Lieutenant testified. Therefore, I find you guilty of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. Since this is your second conviction within five years, I am also suspending your privilege to drive for a year.”
There could have been no finer lesson as to the importance of honesty and integrity to the core values of being a Commissioned Officer. These days, the media barrages us with a near constant barrage of mea culpas from an endless list of public officials over their transgressions of the public trust. As corny as it may sound in light of that, I like to think that when I traded olive drab for navy blue I never sullied those principles and ideals I learned as an Officer and a Gentleman.
Epilogue – My traffic guys felt it necessary to regale all the other MPs about how “their” Lieutenant obtained a DWI conviction without an arrest, with any field sobriety test and without a blood alcohol level test. Of course, it didn’t take long for the Provost Marshal, Colonel Weinberg, to summon me to his office and explain my actions. The Colonel was a micro-managing authoritarian martinet who seemed to delight in making life miserable for all the officers he commanded.
He frowned menacingly throughout my explanation of what had happened. The Colonel had an especially annoying way of drawing out his words when addressing subordinates, particularly when he was displeased which was all the time.
“Lieuuuuutenaaaant Goldshine. I do not expect my officerssss to be running around at night playing cowboy. If you feel you mussssst do sooooo, I can arrange to have you sssssent right back to the Infantry. Are we clear on that point, Lieuuuutenaaaant?”
“Crystal clear, sir.” – What, you thought Tom Cruise was the first to use that expression?
“The Magistrate called to tell me what a fine job you did on this case and commended you on your testimony in court. Good job. That will be all.”
I rendered a smart salute, did a sharp about face and left his office.
At that moment, much to my surprise, I suddenly felt the longing to dig foxholes and freeze my tuchas off, drenched from the constant rain that is the Pacific Northwest while lost somewhere in the dank woods of Ft. Lewis.