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National Guard Says Army Falsely Calls Man Deserter

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In January 1997, a company of 125 California National Guard soldiers went to Germany as part of the United States peacekeeping effort in Bosnia.

In September, 124 returned. Spec. Mason Jacques Karl O’Neal of Sunnyvale was not among them.

His strange disappearance has triggered an odd and bitter war of words between two powerful governmental entities, the Army and the National Guard.

Explanations for O’Neal’s disappearance in Germany range from “missing under unusual circumstances” to emotional problems to outright desertion.

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Caught in the middle of this bureaucratic conflict are O’Neal’s bewildered wife and children, who are now plagued with deep financial troubles to go along with their mental anguish.

Because the Army has branded O’Neal a deserter, it has stripped his wife, Fatima O’Neal, of his pay and benefits, forcing her and their three children--ages 5, 2 and 18 months--to go on welfare. The Army has also demanded that the family repay benefits it says they did not deserve.

“It doesn’t make any sense for the American Army to lose one soldier. . . . There was no war. Where is my husband?” Fatima O’Neal asked.

For almost a year, the two services have quarreled about who was responsible for the missing soldier and who should investigate further.

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Since last fall, neither the Army nor the National Guard, which does not believe O’Neal is a deserter, has made any attempt to uncover his fate.

As recently as last week, National Guard officials have pressed the Army to re-review O’Neal’s case.

“I wanted to be sure that somebody spoke up for the soldier and his family,” said Lt. Col. Warren Alberts of the National Guard. “I’ll admit that we [the National Guard] made a mistake in this soldier’s case. We failed his family and need to correct it.”

The Army has declined to provide details about the O’Neal matter, but at one point, even its own investigators believed he should be classified as missing.

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National Guard officials believe O’Neal is a “medical casualty” disabled by psychological problems--not a deserter--and should be listed as missing. This would allow his family to continue receiving his pay and benefits.

“He was not [mentally] competent at the time and without the mental capacity to commit the crime [of desertion],” said Alberts, appointed by the Guard in January to lobby the Army to declare O’Neal missing.

O’Neal, 32, was sent to Germany as a military policeman with the 649th Military Police Company.

Army officials said he had been showing signs of mental illness--a finding the family disputes. An Army psychological report said O’Neal suffered from “delusional disorder/persecutory type"--and ran away July 17, while being taken to a base clinic for observation.

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According to the report, O’Neal’s psychological problems began to surface only days before he escaped from two medical escorts and ran into a wooded area that borders a firing range that was being used at the time in Grafenwohr, Germany.

O’Neal’s wife said in a recent interview that her husband had never shown mental problems during their nine-year marriage. She said that in their last telephone conversation July 14, he told her he believed “he was in danger and that somebody was out to get him.”

A “psychological autopsy” performed by an Army psychologist after O’Neal vanished determined that he suffered from paranoia, anxiety and fear of persecution.

On the afternoon of his disappearance, O’Neal asked to meet with a sergeant, who listened as O’Neal complained that he was treated unfairly by his unit, according to a report written by civilian investigators from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command.

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Spec. Bryan Lopes, a guardsman who worked in Germany with O’Neal, said O’Neal believed that “the chain of command had lost confidence in his ability to do the job [of a military policeman].”

“He was put in a patrol area where there were not a lot of people, just warehouses and a motor pool area. He didn’t like that,” Lopes said.

During his meeting with the Army sergeant, O’Neal rambled and “was unable to commit and concentrate on one topic,” the investigators’ report said.

The sergeant listening to O’Neal became alarmed and asked two other senior noncommissioned officers to join him as O’Neal talked about his problems. At one point, O’Neal began crying, the report said.

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The three noncommissioned officers promised to help him and told him to go to dinner while they decided on a plan of action. When O’Neal returned from the mess hall, he was told that two other soldiers would take him to get help, but O’Neal bolted when he learned they were taking him to the base clinic, according to the Army’s investigative report.

O’Neal wasn’t the only problem for his unit. Some military policemen had been arrested for sexual assaults, drug and alcohol abuse and threatening other soldiers, according to soldiers and a National Guard performance report of the unit. And the unit was plagued with charges of poor leadership.

Morale also suffered when the National Guard troops resorted to buying cellular telephones to communicate within their unit because the Army failed to provide them with adequate communications equipment, such as radios, when they were on patrol, the performance report said.

The Army psychologist’s report said that O’Neal’s condition was exacerbated when he was ordered to attend a leadership school. According to the report, O’Neal told others that he was afraid of failing the course.

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When O’Neal vanished, his commander from the Army’s 95th Military Police Battalion failed to do an investigation and ordered that O’Neal’s case be handled solely by the National Guard company commander, according to Alberts of the National Guard.

O’Neal’s case also fell through the cracks of the military’s bureaucracy, said Maj. Matthew Dana, California National Guard judge advocate. After the Army’s investigation, neither the Army nor the National Guard made any further attempts to find out what happened to him.

Fatima O’Neal, who says her constant requests for information about her missing husband were ignored by both the Army and National Guard for six months, is still waiting for answers.

“I need help. I need support. My children and I need therapy,” she said. “My oldest is regressing in school. . . . Where is the Army family when you need them? Where is the support group that’s supposed to help soldiers’ families? When I needed support, nobody supported me.”

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She spent half a year and hundreds of dollars calling the Red Cross and military officials in Washington and throughout California asking for financial assistance and additional details about her husband’s disappearance.

“Nobody would call me back. . . . The Red Cross said nobody could help me because my husband is a deserter,” she said.

That changed after Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Atherton) began pressing the Pentagon for answers about why O’Neal was classified as a deserter. The congresswoman blasted the Army in a strongly worded Nov. 6 letter.

“The idea that the family of a U.S. soldier could be treated so poorly while so many questions remain about his fate is appalling to me,” Eshoo said in the letter. “If Spec. O’Neal was not in his right mind when this incident occurred, the Army’s duty to care for his family remains intact.”

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The Army disagreed.

Two weeks ago, Fatima O’Neal received a letter from the Army demanding that she repay $21,000 she received from her husband’s benefits package, which officials say she did not deserve because he deserted.

Army officials declined to discuss O’Neal’s case. Instead, they released a brief written statement that said a review of the case determined that O’Neal could not be listed as missing because “a soldier’s absence must be involuntary to qualify as a missing person.”

Curiously, though, agents from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command concluded in their report--a copy of which was obtained by The Times--that the “investigation established probable cause to believe that O’Neal is a missing person.”

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O’Neal’s company commander attempted to report O’Neal as missing. However, the Army battalion commander ordered that O’Neal be listed as AWOL and declined to investigate further, said Alberts. According to Army regulations, O’Neal was automatically listed as a deserter after being absent for 30 days.

Even though O’Neal was labeled a deserter, the U.S. Army Deserter Information Desk has no record of him, Alberts said.


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