FORT MEADE, Md. – Breaking the law in service of a greater good has proven very costly for Lt. Col. Terrence L. Lakin.
The Army flight surgeon lost his career and his freedom today after exposing himself to court martial, in an effort to validate the military chain of command by determining whether President Barack Obama is constitutionally eligible to serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
After deliberating four hours, an Army court-martial panel sentenced Lakin to six months in prison, forfeiture of pay and dismissal from the service.
On Wednesday, the panel had convicted Lakin of “missing movement” of an airplane scheduled to fly him to his new unit. On Tuesday, the first day of the trial, Lakin pleaded guilty to three counts of disobeying orders. All of the charges were felonies.
Lakin’s confinement began this evening and will continue for six months unless Major General Karl R. Horst, the general in command of Army troops in the Washington, D.C. area, decides to grant clemency or reduce the sentence. As the “court-martial convening authority,” Horst has the power to review the sentence handed down by the panel.
Because dismissal, the officer’s equivalent of an enlisted man’s dishonorable discharge, is considered a “punitive discharge,” Lakin is automatically entitled to appeal the sentence to the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals. Lakin’s defense counsel has not yet commented about plans to appeal.
“The accused refused to deploy as a tool to score points for a political cause,” prosecutor Capt. Philip J. O’Beirne told the court martial panel before their sentencing deliberations. O’Beirne asked the panel to imprison Lakin for 24 months and dismiss him from the service.
Defense counsel Neal Puckett asked the panel to punish Lakin with a reprimand and a fine, and to allow him to remain in service and “work off” his debt to the Army.
“I’m very disheartened by what has happened,” said retired Navy Commander Charles Kerchner. “The court ignored Lakin’s noble purpose. He disobeyed orders in order to fulfill his oath as an officer to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Lakin invited his own court martial in April when he deliberately refused to report to the 101st Airborne Division a few weeks before the unit deployed to Afghanistan. The division was being sent to fight Islamic jihadists as part of Obama’s military “surge” strategy. Lakin questioned whether the orders were legally valid because their authority traces ultimately to the president, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
By making the Army put him on trial, Lakin planned, through the pretrial “discovery” process, to force Obama to produce background and identity documents he has refused to make public, such as his birth certificate. Lakin hoped the documents would establish conclusively whether Obama is a “natural-born citizen,” the U.S. Constitution’s requirement to serve as president.
Col. Denise Lind, the judge conducting the court martial, frustrated Lakin’s plans and crippled his defense with a series of rulings narrowing the scope of the trial. Lind refused to allow Lakin discovery, saying revelation of background information might prove “embarrassing” to Obama. Lind also refused to allow Lakin to introduce evidence and expert testimony.
The stress of the court martial took an obvious toll on Lakin.
“He looks like a beaten man,” said Tim Mayhak of North Pole, Alaska, one of Lakin’s character witnesses. Mayhak, a retired Army helicopter pilot, served with Lakin in a year-long deployment in Afghanistan in 2004-2005.
“I’ve known Terry as a more boisterous person,” said Mayhak. “He’s always been easy to talk to, happy. I used to run with him, and he was strong and confident. Now he seems tired, he’s lost weight. His hair is noticeably grayer.”
Mayhak suggested the Army chose to make an example of Lakin so that other soldiers would think twice about using the court-martial process for political purposes.
“The Army didn’t have to court-martial him. They could have just dismissed him in the interest of maintaining good order and discipline,” said Mayhak. “And why was I the one called in to testify on his behalf? It should have been Gen. McInerney and Ambassador Keyes.”
Lakin’s defense team initially planned to introduce retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney and Ambassador Alan Keyes to testify about the duty to disobey orders under special circumstances and the Constitutional requirements to serve as president, respectively.
“His question [about Obama's eligibility] still hasn’t been answered,” Mayhak added. “Orders have to originate somewhere, as we learned at the Nuremberg trials after World War II.”
Obama’s eligibility to occupy the Oval Office remains unproven.
Many observers were disappointed by the defense strategy of portraying Lakin as a victim of the so-called “Birther” movement. In arguing for leniency, defense counsel Puckett called concerns about Obama’s eligibility “crazy,” called Lakin’s perception of a higher duty a “mirage,” and said Lakin had become “obsessed with the Constitution.” Puckett described Lakin’s course of action as a “horrible mistake” rather than as heroic self-sacrifice.
“I am outraged,” said Theresa Cao, an ardent Lakin backer. “I’ve been taking his message to the White House and Congress that Lakin was standing up for God, Constitution and country. Puckett let Lakin down, and Lakin let all of us down.”
Kerchner was more understanding.
“Lakin had no choice but to surrender,” said the retired Navy officer. “He was confronted by overwhelming force, with no way of defending himself … he had to surrender now to protect his family. We honor our POWs, we should also honor Lakin for what he did.”