By Joey King
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 1980s. We were instant friends and we even shared a place for a couple of years. Our house was the center for the campus ROTC Ranger Club. These clubs are campus groups within the ROTC programs that teach cadets guerrilla tactics and so on. It was effectively our college fraternity.
After graduation and receiving our commissions as lieutenants, we attended US Army Ranger School together. Our graduation ceremony in August 1985 was a day I will always remember. Jerry went on to the Old Guard in Washington DC, and I went to the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg NC. Three weeks after arriving at Fort Bragg, my unit went to Panama for Jungle School. There, our battalion commander let us run wild and by the time word got back to Fort Bragg, he was relieved of his command.
In November 1985, I met the man who changed my life, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Ronald F. Rucksack (not his real name), 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 tasks and so on.
When a unit of several hundred paratroopers executes a peace-time jump into a drop zone, things can go wrong. On a particular jump into Germany, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I was very late re-supplying my soldiers that night. Somewhere during the confusion, I ran into our medical platoon leader, Bruce Hazelton. He was visibly shaken. I asked what was wrong, and he told me that Colonel Rucksack had just physically assaulted him. Striking a soldier is a very serious offense in the Army. If Bruce reported it and it was found to be true, Rucksack’s career would have ended.
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 started an investigation. Several days later, I ran into Bruce again. I asked if he planned 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 starts an investigation that leads to a conviction. Maybe the JAG officer could have gotten Bruce to talk.
I was a short-timer. Besides, I was not the one allegedly assaulted. I only heard about the alleged assault from the alleged victim. Bruce would have to live under the tyranny of Colonel 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 happened without eyewitnesses. Would other eyewitnesses 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 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.
I left the Army in July 1987. President Reagan 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 1987. That was the last time I saw Jerry 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.
Jerry along with several of my Army buddies 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 promoted LTC Rucksack to full Colonel and gave him command of a brigade in the 82nd Airborne Division. It is one of the most elite commands an infantry Colonel can have.
Fast forward to March 16th 2012, when Jerry emailed a bunch of his old college buddies 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. Good news this past week is that the tumors are responding to a newer round of chemo and beginning to shrink. The tumors can’t be removed surgically, so hopefully the chemo can manage it. For now I am back at work full time with the exception of the chemo days and keeping up the fight.”
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 went to Jerry’s home in Carlisle Pennsylvania as soon as we could. What I learned during this short visit disturbed me.
Jerry was six feet tall and weighed only 155 pounds. He weighed more than that when we graduated from Ranger school! Around 2002, he 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 had a tumor there too. He is an only child and neither his mother nor father has cancer.
During the March 2012 visit Jerry told me something that made me question my “non-decision” in Germany 25 years earlier.
For years, I had heard that an Army unit blew up “something” during the first Gulf War that spread dangerous carcinogens to everybody downwind. Several years later after Gary, another ROTC buddy, got out of the Army, he received a letter saying that his unit was downwind and he, thus, had an increased risk of cancer. I am sure Jerry received the same letter. Who knows how many people received this letter?
Jerry told me that Colonel Rucksack was the one who ordered the demolition. According to Jerry’s account, Rucksack did not know what was inside.
You can imagine what went through my mind. What if I had reported what I heard on that drop zone? It 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? After all, that is what paratroopers do, blow stuff up. They destroy stuff: marriages, the enemy, themselves, 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 may have resented me going behind his back. He may have told the JAG that I misunderstood. But then again, maybe he would have said Rucksack assaulted him thus starting the wheels of military justice rolling.
Between Jerry and me, we knew at least two officers whose careers were 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 has cancer? Was Rucksack held responsible by the Army? I doubt it since he was later promoted to General. Has the Army 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 find him, I will ask him about the “what ifs.”
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 now is to tell my story and Jerry’s story.