A senior officer at the Marine Corps Air Station here, targeted in a probe that may have prompted the suicide of his best friend, defended himself Wednesday against allegations of official misconduct and called the investigation involving the two men "a nightmare."
In an emotional telephone interview, Col. Joseph E. Underwood said he "would love to give my side of the story" but was prevented from discussing the specifics of the investigation because of military protocol.
Underwood said his one-time flight school partner and neighbor, Col. James E. Sabow, was "as close to the perfect officer as anybody I've ever known" and is dead because of a tragic misunderstanding.
Sabow, 51, shot and killed himself at his El Toro base home Tuesday, five days after the 28-year Marine was relieved of his duties as assistant chief of staff for operations, base officials said.
As further details of the case emerged Wednesday, the military acknowledged for the first time that the investigation centers on whether the two men used military planes for personal activities.
Underwood, Sabow's immediate superior and chief of staff at the base until his suspension Jan. 12, acknowledged that the personal flights involved golf trips to the East Coast and elsewhere to play in military tournaments.
Underwood, a golfer with a handicap below 10, is a competitor in the senior division of the nationwide All-Marine golf tournament. Competitors in that tournament have their travel expenses, normally on commercial flights, paid for by the military.
According to sources close to the Underwood family, the colonel claimed that by using a military plane he was saving the government money.
It is unclear how Sabow, who oversaw air operations at El Toro and at three other Western Marine airfields, is alleged to have used base planes improperly.
Underwood, who declined to give his age, defended his reputation and the memory of Sabow, his "best friend" and classmate at flight school three decades ago. Underwood said he himself had done nothing wrong and that Sabow was "a wonderful husband, father, officer." He declined to comment on the allegations against Sabow.
The colonel said he made the trips to keep his active status as a pilot, not to have the government pay for his golfing excursions. "I've got to get in flight time in that aircraft," he said, referring to the C-12 Beechcraft.
Underwood lamented the fact that the investigation was apparently started by a call to a military hot line.
"How do you defend yourself against an anonymous hot line?" he demanded, referring to a Department of Defense telephone line set up to report suspicions of misconduct and fraud. Sources have said the tip that prompted the probe was phoned into the hot line.
A 29-year veteran of the Marines, Underwood suggested that the investigation and his suspension were instigated by unknown enemies on the base that he gained during his three years as chief of staff.
A Marine spokeswoman declined to respond to Underwood's comments. The only official response Wednesday from the base came in a statement from Brig. Gen. Wayne T. Adams, the base commander, who said that there will be "a thorough investigation into the allegations. I intend to ensure that justice is served."
As for Sabow, who lived next door to the Underwoods on base, Underwood's wife, Jean, described him as "such a straight arrow, you wouldn't know what a straight arrow he is."