War and History Non-Fiction posted January 13, 2021

This work has reached the exceptional level
Routine weekend guard duty not routine.

Private Gunther's Leave Request

by Lance S. Loria

Life, Death, and Leadership Contest Winner 

This is a true story that I experienced (but the names have been changed). It took place during the Fall, 1972 after I had recently graduated from college. I was a 22-year-old Army officer fresh from ROTC, in my first assignment, stationed at Ft. Lee, Virginia. U.S. Army Summer Camp had been completed only two months earlier at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; including a brief introductory three-day ranger confidence (obstacle) course. Now I was a part-time training officer at the U.S. Army Quartermaster School, while I attended Quartermaster classes part-time.

On a day-to-day basis I was Executive Officer (XO) or second in command of a company of cooks and related support personnel. That's correct. If you've heard any stories about the Army, you probably know that if a soldier couldn't do anything right, they made him a cook. Well, I trained an entire company of cooks--nearly 200 of them. Besides cooking, of course they had to know basic drill (how to march) and perform physical training (PT) activities to be in shape. There was also basic rifle marksmanship training. However, most of the training had to do with food preservation, cleanliness, and cooking.

As a junior officer, this particular weekend, I was assigned as the Battalion staff duty officer in-charge, which is a grandiose sounding title that essentially amounted to Army post guard duty. I managed all Military Police (MP) actions for the weekend, including every speeding ticket, noise complaint, drunken disorderly conduct, fist-fight, or you name it, with MPs walking in and out of HQ and reports piling up on my desk over the 60-hour weekend beginning 6 pm Friday and ending 6am Monday. This included any and all military and civilian criminal or civil problems throughout Ft. Lee. Considering Ft. Lee had over 25,000 military and civilian residents, this was a massive responsibility for a 22-year-old.

I reported to a modest Battalion Headquarters (HQ) office about 15 minutes early for orientation and transition. There were two privates and my Company A Sargent Major (SGM) under my direct command for the weekend. The two privates were on 12-hour work shifts but the SGM was on the entire 60-hour shift with me. The SGM and I took turns trying to catch some shut eye when things got quiet, which was not very often. There was a much-needed coffee pot and the mess hall delivered meals and snacks since we were not supposed to leave our post unless there was an emergency.

I swear it must have been a full moon weekend since there had been so much activity and neither the SGM nor I got a chance to get very much sleep at all. Some of the complaints and problems were weird as well. One soldier was caught climbing the main Ft. Lee flag pole. He was so drunk it was a miracle he didn't fall and break his neck. He said he just wanted to see if he could do it. He was arrested.

Another private picked up a Major's hat from the Officer's Club parking lot and was walking around the post ordering soldiers to do push-ups. He tried to get a Captain to do them, but the officer realized that the private was out of proper uniform. Again, the prankster was arrested. One more report to write up.

Things seemed to settle down early Monday morning around three am. I advised the two privates to be quiet and handle all matters for the next two hours unless it was the 'old man' (Battalion Commander) calling. That would give me an hour before the end of my shift to sign off any paperwork and transition to the next duty officer. I stretched out on the only available cot (officer privilege) and the SGM leaned back in a chair and put his feet on the desk and we both immediately fell asleep.

What seemed like only minutes later, I was being awakened for what appeared to be a routine complaint and not something that needed my attention.

"Lieutenant. Sir, wake up. Are you awake, Sir?"

"Huh? What's going on? What's the matter?"

"Sir. There's a problem in Company A. In your Company Sir."

"I know Company A is my Company. What is the problem?"

"Sir, it's Private Gunther (not his real name). He's packing to leave. He's going home."

At this point I'm putting on my boots while trying to understand the magnitude of this problem and my eyes opened wide. "You woke me up because a private in my company is packing his bag to go home?"

"Yes Sir. No Sir. Not just that Sir. But, yes Sir that's correct Sir."

"Which is it?" I demanded, as I stood up, straightened my uniform, drank some coffee and put on my hat.

"Private Gunther received a call from his family and his mother may be terminally ill and he's planning to leave tonight to go visit her."

"So why is this such a crisis? Hasn't anyone begun the paperwork for a compassionate leave pass?"

"Sir, Private Gunther is on a 30-day post restriction and therefore everyone thought he wasn't eligible."

I ordered that one of the privates contact the Adjutant General (AG) office for an immediate legal consult on whether a compassionate leave pass could be issued under the circumstances for Private Gunther and requested that the AG's answer be sent to me by radio response as soon as it was received.

Next, I ordered that two MPs meet me at the Company A barracks and inform Private Gunther not to leave since I was on the way to speak with him. That's when I learned more bad news.

"Sir, the MPs are already there. That's really why we woke you."

"OK, what haven't you told me?"

"The MPs tried to arrest Private Gunther."

"On what charge? Packing a bag after curfew?"

"We don't know the actual charge, Sir. But Private Gunther disarmed MP Officer Jackson and is holding him hostage."

"Oh no. This is bad. Anyone hurt, and are there any others in the barracks?"

"No sir. No injuries and Private Gunther allowed everyone, even the other MP to leave."

I grabbed my sidearm and rushed out the door followed by SGM. This clearly was an emergency requiring my attention and I wanted SGM with me. There was an MP jeep waiting outside and with lights flashing, we sped over to Company A barracks. Since it was about 4 am we decided not to sound the siren, particularly since we had to drive directly past the Commandant's house along the way.

The barracks area looked like a circus. There were a couple of large searchlights mounted on trucks, numerous jeeps and cars and literally hundreds of personnel wandering the streets in the area. I began wondering how long I had actually been asleep.

Since Company A was my normal command there was a lot of chatter when I arrived so I sent SGM ahead and he yelled, "Attention!" The crowd immediately stood still and became silent. I dismounted and the senior MP Officer Taylor approached. I asked him to form an MP team for crowd control and to establish a perimeter to clear the area and disperse the military and civilian personnel. The crowd was pushed back behind the next barracks building to shield them in the event of any unexpected gun fire. I was praying there would be none but certainly wanted to avoid any accidental casualties.

I needed the building secured with Private Gunther inside so I assigned two MPs to each of the barracks side exit doors and established a radio protocol to ensure that there would be no breach. Although there was no back door, there were several windows, so I had one MP assigned to watch the entire rear of the building and had him tied into the radio signals as well. The remaining several MPs were positioned behind two jeeps near the front door. I ordered SGM to remain with the jeeps out front.

Private Gunther had never had any serious conduct problems until two weekends ago when on leave, when he didn't return on time and was Absent Without Leave (AWOL). This had been his first offense and he received a routine 30-day restriction to base, which is what he was currently serving. Since I was Private Gunther's Commanding Officer, I reasoned he was quite likely to respond positively to my request for him to stand down. Therefore, it would be necessary for me to enter the building to speak with him to achieve this desired end result. However, Private Gunther was armed with the MP's .45 and I'm not foolish enough to approach him without any backup. I requested two MPs to follow along and enter the barracks with me.

The front door had an entry foyer that was about a 6x6 foot square area. Using hand signs, I motioned for the two MPs to stand on either side of the inner doorway and to wait there quietly. From the foyer entry, I could see Private Gunther standing by his bunk still putting a couple of things in his bag, while MP Officer Jackson was sitting on the floor at the end of the bunk. The .45 pistol was lying on the bunk next to Gunther's bag. I cautiously stepped into the barracks area and calmly called out to Private Gunther.

"Good morning Private Gunther, are you all packed and ready to go visit your mom yet?"
Gunther swirled around picking up the .45 in his hand and pointed it at me. I froze looking down the barrel.

"What's the gun for? I've got your compassionate leave request pass being typed in my office."

Of course, that was a lie. I had received a brief radio call from the AG office informing me that while compassionate leave pass requests were granted nearly one hundred percent of the time, even in combat zone situations, they were virtually never granted in circumstances where an individual committed a crime during an attempt to obtain one. I was only praying that Private Gunther would trust me. Private Gunther looked at me for a long minute and finally lowered the .45 before dropping it on the bunk in front of him.

"Lieutenant, am I glad to see you! My mother is terribly sick and I have to go see her tonight. No one on base was helping me. Then the MPs showed up and wanted to arrest me. I couldn't let that happen."

"Private, I wish you had come to see SGM or me first. But no worries, I'm here now. Would it be okay if we let MP Officer Jackson get up and leave now?"

Private Gunther was happy to let him go and even handed him the .45 as Officer Jackson walked out through the front entry.

Private Gunther took one more look around and tossed the bag over his shoulder. Then I followed him out the front door to where the two MPs were waiting. They jumped him, wrestled him to the ground, and handcuffed him. Private Gunther never knew what hit him. He was immediately taken directly to the stockade.

I checked with MP Officer Taylor and requested that he clear the barracks, return the area to normal and ordered him to bring a full report of his activities to me at HQ. I then departed to return to Battalion staff HQ to write the lengthy and detailed military complaint report as well as complete a few interviews of several MPs and other witnesses. My report had to be filed Monday morning before 8 am (my day off following the 60-hour shift).

Private Gunther was arraigned Monday and had a speedy trial the following week, at which he was sentenced to one year in military prison. Things could have been much worse for him. Fortunately, he didn't injure Officer Jackson, but only disarmed him. He didn't harm any others. He cooperated with the arresting officer (me). I didn't file a personal complaint since he never intentionally threatened me with a firearm (although I felt threatened). He didn't go AWOL (absent without leave) since we caught him before he had a chance to leave.

Sadly, he never received a compassionate leave pass and his mother passed away while he was in prison. I've always felt terrible about that outcome.

Thankfully, there were no other casualties that night, and of that fact, I'm quite proud.

If anyone asks me, have I ever looked down the barrel of a loaded gun and survived, I can say yes.


Life, Death, and Leadership
Contest Winner


R.O.T.C. = Reserve Officer Training Corp (university based training for military officers)
Hooah is the Army winning battle cry.
Photo: 2nd Lt. (me/name blinded)
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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