A Service Record Stained, a Marine Officer's Life Lost

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Col. James E. Sabow spent 28 years building an impeccable service record in the Marine Corps--a long journey toward the coveted stars of a general that is not for the weak, the impatient, the immoral or the corrupt.

Those joining the small fraternity of colonels wearing the silver bird with its spread wings live with the reality that the smallest mistake or indiscretion could derail all the years of hard work and good intentions.

Such appears to be the case with Sabow, who killed himself Tuesday after his long, distinguished career seemed to come to a halt.

"The (promotion) process is long and laborious," said Santa Ana lawyer Kevin McDermott, a Marine Corps reserve officer who represents Marines who run afoul of military rules. "The promotion process is very good for weeding out character flaws. By the time you reach the rank of colonel, you have to assume the man has a lot of character. It is expected of him."

The first word of an investigation began circulating around the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station earlier this month, according to friends. By last week, both Sabow, 51, and his friend and boss, Col. Joseph E. Underwood, chief of staff for operations, had been relieved of their duties for allegedly using a Marine aircraft for personal reasons.

On Tuesday, Sabow, a family man with two college-age children and a wife described by friends as "lovely and kind," walked onto the patio of his military home on the base, put a shotgun to his head and killed himself.

Sabow's friends were shocked by the news of his suicide.

"It seems like such a small thing," McDermott said. "It seems very extreme action for the alleged unauthorized use of an airplane."

Barry Spatz, a Santa Ana psychologist, said his first reactions to the suicide were "thoughts of death before dishonor." Spatz, who has spent many years counseling troubled and sometimes despondent police officers, said the idea of Sabow's reputation being "besmirched" by the investigation "possibly pushed him over the edge."

"Cops call it eating your gun," Spatz said, noting he knew nothing more about Sabow's death than what was in the newspapers. "It could be a real George Patton death or dishonor thing."

Boston clinical psychologist Pamela Cantor said a military career is one that has to be played by the book. Officers are expected to be of the highest moral character and, for whatever reason, if that image is threatened, the officer may see suicide as the only way out.

"Why do you think we have businessmen jumping out of the office windows? They think they are failures because they lost all their money," said Cantor, a past president of the American Assn. of Suicidology and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School.

"It is the same thing when someone's whole identity is wrapped up in the military," she said. "He may see the whole matter as insurmountable. He sees it as black or white, all or nothing. It is like the businessman; if he had stopped and asked his family, they would have said, 'We want you, not your money.' "

Sabow's career included more than 200 combat missions in a Marine A-6 Intruder over Vietnam. He was a squadron commander, and after being promoted to colonel, headed up a Marine Air Group of AV-8 Harriers in Yuma, Ariz.

His decorations included the Meritorious Service Medal and Bronze Star for combat, along with numerous other war medals and ribbons. At the time of his death, he was an assistant chief of staff in charge of air operations at El Toro.

"The death of Col. Sabow was a tragic loss," said Brig. Gen. Tom Adams, commanding officer of the El Toro base. "My concern now is his family."

Another clinical psychologist, Henry Seiden of Long Island, N.Y., said wounds to a person's self-esteem can be painful. A co-author of the book "Silent Grief--Living in the Wake of Suicide," Seiden said such narcissistic injuries sometimes cannot be overcome.

"The only solution may have been suicide," he said. "There may not have been in his mind any other way out."

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