I‘ve always been acutely aware at how the law can cut two ways. It can work in your favor or it can work against you. Sometimes on the same principle.
The law itself is blind, impartial. It cares not for your guilt or your innocence. It simply is. You deal with it in the grain of your temperament and the concrete overlay of your actions. We all do.
This hit home for me when I was on active duty in the Army. Stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington in the late 1980s, I had a mostly positive experience. I had aced Airborne School and was attached to the First Special Forces Group. In the two-and-a-half years I was stationed there, I participated in two field training exercises in South Korea and endured a month of cold weather training in Alaska (in the month of January). When I left the service in the summer of 1987, I had attained the rank of E-5, buck sergeant.
I remember entering the military and being able to drink any beverage I wanted. At eighteen years old, I was of legal drinking age in any state in the union simply by being a member of the U.S. military. No matter what the drinking age locally, I was legal.
In 1987, the year the military issued its directive to all base commanders to change their on-base drinking ages to match the state law where the base is located, I was 20 years old, just a few months from my 21st birthday. The legal drinking age in Washington state at the time was 21. It had been for a long time.
A friend of mine and I had been at a party off base. We weren’t drunk. I don’t remember why, but my friend was driving my car. I nursed a beer between my legs as I rode quietly in the passenger’s seat.
As we approached the base entrance, I slipped the can of beer between my seat and the car door to shield it from the gate guard’s view. That was a stupid move. The guard noticed. It was night time, but the gate was well lit. I honestly thought I had made the maneuver well before the guard could see what I was up to. It had to be a couple hundred feet to the gate entrance, but he was well-trained.
When we got to the gate, he told my friend to pull off to the side. A military police officer (an E-3, I believe) patted me down and then took me to jail. He let my friend go.
It wasn’t more than a couple of hours before my friend and a senior NCO arrived to pick me up. I wasn’t worried about Staff Sergeant (SSG) Belichick. It was Battalion Command Sergeant Major (CSM) McGuire who had me worried.
The next day, CSM McGuire called me into his office. As an E-5, I thought for sure I was going to lose my stripe and fall back to being a puny specialist again. As it turned out, that was not the sergeant major’s plan. Instead, he relegated me to a week of extra duty, which consisted of me mowing the battalion yard and picking up around the battalion headquarters. Though I didn’t like the duty, I was relieved.
Nevertheless, I did the one thing I could do, the one and only action I had recourse to do. I appealed.
I researched the format for letters of appeal and wrote one up, then I showed it to an SSG Belichick, who made a few suggestions. Then I submitted the appeal to the First Special Forces Group sergeant major. Unfortunately, or fortunatelY, he was traveling on military-related business, which left CSM McGuire, as the senior ranking NCO in the Group. He called me to the Group CSM’s office and flatly denied my appeal.
“Sergeant Taylor,” he said to me. “You clearly have some writing ability. You should do something with that. But I have to deny your appeal. After all, the law is the law and base policy is base policy. I can’t change those.”
I understood, and to be honest, I expected that to be the answer. I was sorely disappointed, more so by the fact that I had got in trouble than for any thought of injustice. I deserved it and I knew it.
That was my first lesson in how hard the bite of the law can be. It was also my first real experience with mercy. It felt foreign.
CSM McGuire could have been more harsh in his punishment. I’m thankful that he wasn’t. The experience taught me that there is no getting around consequences. The law is the only protection we have against the natural cause and effect of our own foolishness. When we butt up against it, we should expect it to burn. But when we need the warmth of its blanket around our cold shoulders, it’s a true and faithful friend.
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