by Joey B. King, Member, Veterans for Peace National Board of Directors
I first met Jerry Cashion during my sophomore year of college in the late summer of 1981. He was a big, 18-year-old kid from southern middle Tennessee who was a football star and hometown hero. I was also from a small town in Tennessee. We were in college Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) together. Both of us were caught up in the Reagan-era military hysteria of the early 1980
’s. We were instant friends and we even shared a place for a couple of years. Our house was the de -facto epicenter for the campus ROTC Ranger Club. These clubs were campus groups within the ROTC programs that teach cadets guerilla tactics and so on. It was effectively our college fraternity.
After graduation and receiving our commissions as lieutenants, we attended U.S. Army Ranger School together. Our graduation ceremony in August, 1985 was a day I will always remember. As people in the Army do, we went our separate ways, but military people form a life-long bond. If you have never been in the military,I can
In November 1985, I met the man who changed my life, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Ronald F. Rucksack, my new battalion commander. Looking back, it is entirely possible that he changed Jerry’s life too. Soon, I grew to loathe the man and the Army. By the spring of 1986, I had decided to leave as soon as my enlistment was up. My unit re-located (permanent change of station “PCS”) to Vicenza, Italy in May of 1986.
In Italy, I served as the company executive officer (“XO”). That means that I was the number two man in a company of paratroopers numbering about a hundred men. I was responsible for supply (in Army parlance, “beans and bullets
.”). The unit in Vicenza had no training area to speak of, so we often traveled to Germany for “Field Training Exercises” or “FTX’s.” Usually, the company XO arrives a few days before and stays a few days after the FTX to coordinate administrative tasksand so on.
When a unit of several hundred paratroopers executes a peace-time jump into a drop zone, any number of things can go wrong; and when one goes wrong, it starts a chain reaction of delays. On a particular jump into Germany, everything that could go wrong did.
I was very late in re-supplying my soldiers thatnight. Somewhere during the confusion, I ran into our medical platoon leader, Bruce Pearl. He was visibly shaken. I asked what was wrong, and he told me thatLTC ) Rucksack , had just physically assaulted him (allegedly of course). Striking a soldier is a very serious offense in the Army. If Bruce reported it, and it was found to be true; LTC Rucksack’s career would have ended.
How is this incident in Germany connected to “doing the right thing” or Jerry Cashion? That is a story 25 years in the making.
That night on the drop zone, I encouraged Bruce to report the alleged physical assault to our internal Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer. This would have startedan investigation. Several days later, I ran into Bruce again. I asked if he planed to report the physical assault. He said, “No.”
At that point, I had a choice too, and I chose to do nothing. Was it the right choice? I could have reported my second-hand knowledge to the JAG officer myself.We often hear in the news of someone reporting something they have heard, and it star
s an investigation that leads to a conviction. Maybe the JAG officer could have gotten Bruce to talk.
I was a short-timer, meaning that I would not be in the Army much longer. Besides, I was not the one who’d allegedly been assaulted. I only heard about the alleged assault from the alleged victim. Whatever, Bruce would have to live under the tyranny of LTC Rucksack, not me.
Could I have misunderstood Bruce? It is possible, but not likely, because I asked him about it twice. It would be unlikely that the incident had happened without eyewitnesses. Would others who witnessed this tell the truth if the JAG officer opened an investigation? Was Bruce afraid that no witnesses would back him up? Or, was Bruce’s mind-set similar to that of an abused wife, thinking he had brought the alleged assault upon himself? (I do not know if Bruce told any other person in our unit. I would be surprised if he didn’t tell his wife, though.)
What happened next?
Well, I left the Army in July of 1987. President Ronald Reagan had decided that there were too many lieutenants in the Army, and offered those of us who had met certain criteria an early-out. I jumped at the chance. We went to Jerry’s parent‘
s farm in Tennessee for a big party around Thanksgiving of that year. That was the last time I saw him for years. He stayed in the Army and went up through the ranks. I would talk with him on the phone or exchange an occasional email, but that was it.
Jerry along with several of my Army buddies then deployed for the first Gulf War in the fall of 1990. I opposed that war and was glad to be on the outside looking in. Before that war, the Army, in its infinite wisdom, had promoted Rucksack to full Colonel and given him command of a brigade in the 82nd Airborne Division. This is one of the most elite commands an infantry Colonel can have.
Fast forward to March 16th, 2012 (there is a connection here, I promise). Jerry emailed a bunch of his old college buddies with this message:
I have been off the net for a while and I apologize for that up front…in May (2011) I was dealing with a lot of abdominal pain but was unsure what exactly it was. A long summer of continued gastro issues and really bad infections resulted in about 75 pounds lost weight and a November diagnosis of stage-4 pancreatic cancer. I have been on chemo since December.
Even though we had not heard much from Jerry in the last 25 years, you can imagine the shock. The “full time” work he described in his email was his teaching job at the Army War College as a full colonel. Three of us in the Nashville area made the trip to Jerry’s home in Carlisle Pennsylvania (750 miles) as soon as we could.
What I learned during this short visit disturbed me.
Jerry was 6 feet tall and weighed only 155 pounds. He was now lighter than when we had graduated from Ranger school! Around 2002, he had had a non-cancerous growth cut off his lymph-nodes. He said that his cancers were not supposed to spread to the thigh, but he‘dhad a tumor there, too. (He is an only child, and neither his mother nor his father has cancer.)
During the March, 2012 visit, Jerry told me something that made me question my “non-decision” in Germany from 25 years ago.
For years, I had heard that during the first Gulf War an Army unit blew up “something” that spread dangerous carcinogens to everybody downwind. Several years later, after our friend Gary got out of the Army, he had received a letter saying that his unit was downwind, and he has an increased risk of cancer. I am sure Jerry received the same letter. Who knows how many people received it?
Jerry told me that Colonel Rucksack was the one who had ordered the demolition. According to Jerry’s account, Rucksack did not know or care what was inside, and had not ordered anyone to check it out; he’d just blown the damned thing up.
You can imagine what went racing through my mind. What if I had reported what I heard on that drop zone? I would have likely ended Rucksack’s career. If another Colonel had been in charge during Desert Storm, would he have blown up that toxic dump as Rucksack did? After all, that is what paratroopers do, blow stuff up. They destroy stuff: the enemy, themselves, marriages…it does not matter. They obliterate everything they come in contact with.
I can’t stop asking myself the question, “what if I had reported that alleged assault?” Bruce might have resented me going behind his back. He might have told the JAG that I misunderstood. But then again, maybe he would have said Rucksack assaulted him, and started the wheels of military justice rolling.
Between Jerry and me, we knew of at least two officers whose careers had been ruined because Rucksack had given them bad Officer Efficiency Reports(OER). I quit the Army because of Rucksack. I hated him, but I have never looked back with regret at leaving the Army. I became a pacifist 15 years after I left.Effectively, Rucksack was the start of me changing my life for the better.
As contrary as it may seem, my love of all sentient beings sprang from a visceral hatred of Ronald F. Rucksack. I can thank him for that.
But as I looked at Jerry’s decaying body, I could not help but feel partially responsible. We all ask ourselves “what if” questions from time to time. What if Gary gets cancer too? Who else on that battlefield that day now has cancer? Was Rucksack ever held responsible by the Army? I doubt it since he has been promoted to General. Has the Army just covered this up?
Is cancer the price Jerry must pay for participation in the evils of war? Will Gary pay a similar price? In the words of Charlie Sheen in an episode of “Two and a Half Men,” “Karma is a fickle bitch, my friend.” I have not been able to find Bruce, but if I do find him, I will certainly ask him about the “what ifs.”
Meanwhile, Jerry was so weak that during our visit he got pneumonia. He had been vaccinated, but that did not stop it.
I know we can’t change the past, and we can’t live in it. As a Taoist, I know we can only live in the moment, the eternal now. What I can do is do the right thing…now; and the right thing is getting this message out there. Tell my story; tell Jerry’s story. Maybe someday you or I will be confronted with a situation, a “decision point” if you will. Maybe this time, we will choose to do the right thing.