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Published: 10/31/2003


Army brass let Hackworth retire despite host of alleged misdeeds

At a motel outside Washington a redheaded woman clad only in a robe opened her door one morning to two men.

They had a simple request: Get your boyfriend.

Her boyfriend, Col. David Hackworth, appeared shirtless from the back of the motel room. The two men, from the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, told the colonel that he was to report back to duty at once.

The scene on Aug. 25, 1971, ended a 24-day, cross-country manhunt for Colonel Hackworth - a manhunt directed by Army generals readying a court-martial of the man who had become an instant media darling at their expense.

Two months earlier, as he was finishing his fourth tour of duty in Vietnam and preparing to retire, the up-and-coming officer had spoken out publicly against the war, how it couldn't be won, and how the Army leaders cared more about their careers than their soldiers.

Ordered to investigate, the Army's inspector general's office quickly uncovered a host of misdeeds by the colonel - some of which the colonel would later admit.

The colonel operated a brothel for his troops, he said, to keep his men from patronizing disease-ridden prostitutes outside the base.

He promoted a regular "Monte Carlo" night for gambling, the proceeds of which were used to buy steaks for the men and help build a school for Vietnamese children.

Then-Capt. Tom Cooney said recently that nobody skimmed any profit, including the colonel: "We used all that money, and we kept records of it."

But Army investigators believed the colonel was making cash on the side by manipulating U.S. currency.

In Vietnam, troops were paid in script. Technically, the script was worthless, to be traded for cash when the soldier went on leave or home. But local businesses accepted the script and converted it on the black market, often trading $200 to $400 in script for $100 in U.S. currency.

Investigators said that Colonel Hackworth smuggled U.S. cash into Vietnam to trade for script on the black market, and then got his troops to trade that script for U.S. cash, dollar-for-dollar, when they went on leave.

Army inspectors traced more than $40,000 in military script converted to cash for the colonel and sent to America. They also confiscated $10,000 more in script troops said the colonel had given them to send abroad.

The colonel insisted then and now that he simply had his troops smuggle out his poker winnings - which he estimated to be $100,000 over two years.

"I was pretty much a master poker player," he told The Blade last week.

He said the currency manipulation charge was simply the Army attacking a whistleblower.

Still, fearing discipline by the Army, on a scheduled leave to the United States he went on the run with his girlfriend before Army agents caught up to him and ordered him back to duty.

He needn't have worried.

Secretary of the Army Robert Froehlke agreed to let the colonel retire, with no charges - deciding that the colonel's "marvelous combat record" outweighed his misdeeds. Besides, he recalled recently, prosecution would have led to bad publicity for the Army.

Said Mr. Froehlke: "The public would have thought, 'Why are you picking on this courageous officer?' "