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A tale of three sergeants: Stripes don't make leaders

Posted By David Hackworth On 04/19/2005 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.

Several weeks ago, our president presented the first Medal of Honor since Somalia – posthumously – to the widow and orphans of Sgt. Paul R. Smith for heroic actions he took “above and beyond the call of duty” to save the men he was leading in Iraq.

But as this is being written, another sergeant, Hasan Akbar, faces court-martial, charged with the murder of fellow members of an American brigade on the eve of the Iraq invasion. His lawyers say he’s nuts, the same thing a shrink said when Akbar was 14. The rub is how this guy – whose Army evaluation reports also say he’s nuts – got in the Army in the first place and then went on to make sergeant in a peculiarly short period of time.

Then there’s convicted felon Sgt. Shawn Kenny – profiled late last year in a brilliant cover piece by investigative journalist Leslie Blade for the Cincinnati CityBeat – who will be up for promotion to master sergeant next month.

Even though the Army grants waivers for exceptional prospects, Kenny was carrying exceptionally heavy baggage. And curiously, when Blade reported that Kenny had been convicted for packing heat, and that prior to joining the Army in 1995, he had the dubious distinction of having been the coordinator for the Southern Ohio chapter of the Aryan Nations and was still sporting tattoos – including a crucified skinhead on one arm and the German death head with SS on the other – when he joined up, there was never an official Army response. Although, Blade says, she was told, “Sergeant Kenny will be promoted.”

A vet who knows Kenny confirmed to me that “Kenny gets promoted under different rules. You see someone promoted that fast, well, it’s just odd.”

There’s a lot that’s odd about Kenny. Blade points out: “Even as a kid he was something else. At 15, he was threatening to shoot his mother. When he enlisted, he claimed it took nine months to get in because of the paperwork.”

That’s probably because, as one former recruiter puts it: “The local recruiter had to have followed up on the Nazi tattoos – which would have led to questions to local law enforcement about Kenny’s background and associates, which would have clearly disqualified him. Something’s really bizarre about who approved this guy’s swearing-in. It was most definitely above the local level.”

Bizarre indeed, since Kenny’s wife, Tabatha, told the police he not only was physically abusive, he was a pro at forging fake IDs and robbing banks – as he himself testified later before a grand jury – to buy guns and ammo and fund illegal Aryan Republican Army missions.

But Blade mentions that Tabatha “also said the Army has greatly benefited her family. She means the U.S. Army.”

Why? Because Somebody Up There, probably FBI agent Ed Woods, now retired, has been watching over Kenny, at least since he turned snitch when caught red-handed – literally – passing dye-stained bills related to a bank robbery. Tabatha says: “Thank God my husband was never charged. God was looking out for him.”

God and the U.S. government.

For example, when the Secret Service searched Kenny’s trailer back in the bad ol’ days and found unauthorized weapons, Kenny got a pass even though it’s a serious violation of the law for convicted felons to possess firearms.

And Kenny’s buddies ranged from the neo-Nazi bank robbers to Timothy McVeigh. But while they all got their due, Kenny got the Army – and the Army apparently got the Snitch Promotion Program.

After joining up, Kenny became a shooting star: In 2004, he was promoted to sergeant first class with less than 10 years of service – not far outside of normal promotions if Kenny hadn’t been charged in 1996 with providing alcohol to his 11-year-old niece and inappropriately touching and kissing the kid. But he received only an Article 15 nonjudicial punishment for actions that would have led to administrative separation, if not court-martial, for any less-connected soldier.

No big surprise, since Leslie Blade says guardian-angel Woods is adamant that the sergeant deserves to have his life changed.

Tell that to the gallant surviving members of Sgt. Smith’s platoon.

And to everyone else who trusts in the Army’s standards and values enough to enlist.


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