One Special Forces sergeant tried to ‘frag’ his superior officer—yet went on to a long career in the Army.
All of my pent-up emotions came to a head. In a cold killing rage, I went to my hootch and grabbed a grenade, walked back to the bunker the XO [executive officer] was in, pulled the pin on the grenade, threw it into the bunker, closed the bunker door, and started back to the hootch. As I was walking back, I heard the explosion of the grenade. Everyone came running, weapons in hand, helmets and flak jackets on, thinking the compound was under attack. It was, but not by the VC [Viet Cong]. …The supply sergeant ran over to tell me that the XO had been wounded and needed my help. I knew I was in trouble right then because I hadn’t gotten the job done. …I was taken to Nha Trang and put in the local jail. Some CID [Criminal Investigation Division] officers interviewed me, asking me why I tried to kill the executive officer. I was really tired of the bullshit, and I told them he was an asshole who deserved to die.”
—Alan G. Cornett, Gone Native: An NCO’s Story
During the Vietnam War, some U.S. troops killed or tried to kill their own officers and noncommissioned officers, usually through the use of a fragmentation grenade, which blasts sharp fragments throughout an area as it explodes. Drugs and alcohol, indiscipline, racism and poor leadership were all factors in these murders or attempted murders, called “fraggings” in the military slang of the day. The U.S. military’s official tally shows 788 fraggings between 1969 and 1972, with 86 deaths and more than 700 wounded.
Fragging is murder, and nothing can ever justify the unlawful killing of a fellow warrior, but the story of Staff Sgt. Alan G. Cornett shows that sometimes even a horrific crime can be forgiven by the Army.
In November 1972 Cornett, a Special Forces medic decorated for heroism in combat, threw an M26 grenade into the bunker where one of his commanders, Lt. Col. Donald F. Bongers, was on duty. Cornett believed that Bongers had wronged him and “deserved to die”—in a horrible and painful way.
Born in Highland Park, Michigan, on Aug. 9, 1944, Cornett grew up in a military family. His father had been an Army infantry officer who saw combat in World War II and Korea. The son enlisted in February 1965 at age 20. Cornett went through basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, followed by advanced training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, for a military specialty. The Army had decided that Cornett was to be a military policeman. He next went to airborne school at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Once he got his parachute badge, Cornett decided he did not want to be an MP and volunteered for Special Forces training. He was sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas to be a Special Forces medic. After successfully completing his schoolwork—and earning the right to wear the green beret—Cornett attended an eight-week Vietnamese language course and then shipped out.
His service in Vietnam began in August 1966. Cornett, now a sergeant, was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Operational Base at Nha Trang, a port city in central South Vietnam. He was in Vietnam for the next 6½ years, although he did return to the States for short periods in 1966 and 1970. On the last rotation home, Cornett completed Army Ranger training.
During his multiple tours in Southeast Asia, Cornett worked as a Special Forces reconnaissance medic, trained Vietnamese Montagnard tribesmen to fight the Viet Cong and served as an intelligence analyst in the Phoenix Program, created to hunt down Viet Cong leadership. He also was a platoon medic in the 101st Airborne Division.
Cornett was wounded in action and awarded two Bronze Star medals with a “V” device for valor. He also had been recommended for the Silver Star to honor his gallantry under fire on Oct. 6, 1971, near Duc Trong in the Central Highlands. The proposed citation states that Cornett charged “against the determined enemy,” and his “dedicated and courageous example” broke a communist counterattack. Cornett was also praised for providing first aid to a Vietnamese soldier wounded in the same firefight.
In November 1972 Cornett was a member of U.S. Advisory Team 40, which provided support to South Vietnamese troops at Duc My, a camp in the central coastlands. By then, he had married a Vietnamese woman, Francoise, who was pregnant with their first child and living near Duc My. For several months, Cornett believed he was being harassed by Bongers, Team 40’s executive officer, because of the lieutenant colonel’s distain for Vietnamese women.
Cornett had married Francoise in a Vietnamese ceremony but not yet tried to get U.S. military recognition for the marriage, which was needed for the family to get military benefits.
Bonger’s boss, Col. Gilligan (first name not available), did not like “mixed marriages” and would not approve a soldier’s request to marry a Vietnamese citizen. “There is no such thing as Vietnamese wives,” Gilligan told Cornett and others around him. “Only Vietnamese whores.” Worse, Bongers told all who would listen that it was “morally wrong” for Americans to associate with Vietnamese women. He also publicly called Cornett’s wife a “whore.”
Gilligan and Bongers told Cornett that he could not bring his wife onto the Team 40 compound. It was common policy to restrict Vietnamese civilians’ access to U.S. installations for security reasons. Civilians had to be signed in and out by an American service member, and overnight stays were not allowed. But the particularly strict restrictions put on Cornett embarrassed him and put a strain on his marriage, especially after his wife had a miscarriage.
Matters came to a head about 3:45 p.m. on Nov. 30, 1972, when Bongers entered one of the team’s communication bunkers—a large metal shipping container converted into a “commo” center—where Cornett was on radio watch. After seeing Cornett open a can of beer, Bongers relieved him for drinking on duty, told him to leave the bunker and then took over the radio duties
Cornett went back to his hooch and began drinking more heavily. In a sworn statement given to the CID later that day, Cornett stated that he “drank a half a case of Budweiser beer, 12 cans, and also had about a pint of rum.” About an hour later, Cornett took an M26 fragmentation grenade off his web belt and put it on the refrigerator. As Cornett explained to the CID agent: “I kept looking at it and wondering if it was worth it … I took the tape off from around the grenade, pulled the safety pin, walked over to the commo bunker, stood there for about fifteen minutes deciding if I should kill him or just throw a scare into him. I decided not to kill him, but to scare him. I threw the grenade down the steps of the bunker … I stayed there until the smoke cleared.”
Bongers was a lucky man that day. He saw the grenade roll into the commo bunker and toward his chair. He “got up and ran up the stairs and as he reached the second step the grenade exploded,” according to the court-martial records. Bongers was not injured in the blast.
Cornett initially feigned ignorance about the identity of the grenade thrower, but when he learned from another soldier that Bongers had accused the staff sergeant of trying to “frag” him, Cornett grabbed his M16 rifle and announced: “If that is what Colonel Bongers thinks, then I’ll kill him for sure.” Cornett was quickly disarmed and taken into custody.
On Dec. 4, 1972, Cornett was sent to the Saigon military police station and placed in a detention cell until he could be moved to the nearby stockade at Long Binh, commonly known as Long Binh Jail, or “LBJ.” A routine strip search by the MPs reportedly “uncovered 9 packets containing .16 grams of heroin.” The packets had been sewn into the hems around each of Cornett’s upper shirt pockets.
Cornett had two attorneys working on his defense, Army Capt. William H. Cunningham and a civilian lawyer he had hired, Richard E. Muri, who was licensed in Washington state and, like other American lawyers during the Vietnam War, moved to Saigon, where he made money defending troops at courts-martial.
Almost certainly on the advice of his defense counsels, Cornett entered into a plea agreement. In exchange for pleading guilty to attempted murder and possession of heroin, he would receive a sentence capped at a dishonorable discharge, 30 years confinement at hard labor, total forfeitures of all pay and allowances, and reduction to the lowest enlisted grade.
The pretrial agreement, however, contained a curious provision: Maj. Gen. Morgan. G. Roseborough, who had sent Cornett’s case to trial and would decide the final sentence, agreed that any “sentence in excess … of confinement at hard labor for one year … [would] be suspended for such period of time as the Convening Authority [Roseborough] deems appropriate.”
It apparently was the understanding among the parties that no matter how much jail time might be imposed by the court-martial jury—Cornett and his defense counsel must have thought it would be considerable, given that he had tried to kill a superior commissioned officer—Cornett would not serve more than one year behind bars.
On Jan. 12, 1973, Cornett pleaded guilty to attempted murder of his superior officer “by means of throwing an M-26 fragmentation grenade into a bunker which the said Lieutenant Colonel Bongers occupied.” He also pleaded guilty to having 0.16 grams of heroin in his possession. But Cornett denied being
a drug user. He told the judge that a “friend” might have sewn the heroin in his uniform pockets so Cornett could say that he was “on drugs” at the time of the incident and perhaps not be responsible for his actions.
The following day, Cornett was sentenced by a panel of seven officers: two colonels, one lieutenant colonel, two majors, one lieutenant and one chief warrant officer. Cornett could have asked for a court-martial jury consisting of at least one-third enlisted personnel (senior in rank to him), but most likely did not because he had a good plea agreement.
The prosecutors were certain that the guilty plea to attempted murder and unlawful possession of heroin would make the rest of the case go smoothly. However, events did not proceed as expected—and from the government’s perspective, the case went awry.
At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor called Bongers to testify. His testimony presumably would provide jurors the justification for a severe sentence. But Cornett’s defense lawyers countered with several officers and NCOs who testified that the sergeant was a good soldier who had been mistreated by his superiors.
Lt. Col. Thomas C. Lodge said Cornett was “an outstanding medic.” Capt. Terrance W. Hoffman testified that the defendant had been “treated unfairly” by Bongers and Gilligan when they denied Cornett’s request to bring his wife into the Team 40 compound. Other witnesses testified that both superior officers had, on more than one occasion, voiced their prejudices against Vietnamese women to the accused and to other soldiers.
Cornett testified in his own behalf. After going through the details of his 6½ years in Vietnam and other aspects of his Army career, he told the seven soldiers sitting in judgment of him that he was sorry for what he had done.
An hour after the court-martial members adjourned to deliberate, they were back with Cornett’s sentence: The staff sergeant was to be reduced to the lowest enlisted grade, forfeit all pay and allowances, and be confined at hard labor for one year. There was, however, no “dishonorable” or “bad conduct” discharge. On March 31, 1973, Roseborough approved the sentence handed down by the court-martial.
Cornett, in the Long Binh stockade during the trial, was shipped to the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Because his sentence did not include a punitive discharge and more than a year’s confinement, Cornett was offered the opportunity to go to the U.S. Army Retraining Brigade at Fort Riley, Kansas, where prisoners are prepared for civilian life or a return to duty. The brigade “housed soldiers who had made mistakes and were given the opportunity to make amends,” Cornett explained in his autobiography. “If they straightened out, they could stay in the Army.”
Francoise moved to the United States and, accompanied by Cornett’s parents, visited him at Fort Riley. The couple had an American wedding in the jail church, and Cornett got one night to spend on a honeymoon. Francoise became pregnant with their first child, a boy. (They also had another boy and a girl. Later, Cornett says in his autobiography, the couple “started to drift apart,” and on the dedication page thanks “my wife, Lori.”)
After completing nine weeks of “retraining,” Cornett was offered either an honorable discharge or restoration to active duty. He stayed in the Army and served as a medic at Fort Riley’s Irwin Army Hospital. In just six months, he was a staff sergeant again.
To reenlist, Cornett had to obtain a waiver from the Department of the Army. Supported by the chain of command, he got the waiver and reenlisted for six more years. After five years at Fort Riley, Cornett did a tour in Germany, followed by service at Fort Benning training Pathfinders—airborne soldiers who set up drop zones for paratroopers and landing zones for helicopters.
He also played on Fort Benning’s football team, the Doughboys, in contests with other Army installations. Cornett even worked as an extra in James Garner’s 1984 movie Tank, which was filmed at Fort Benning.
He was promoted to sergeant first class and was a senior medic with the 10th Special Forces Group in Bad Tölz, Germany, in the mid-1980s. While in that unit, Cornett was selected for early promotion, ahead of his peers, to master sergeant. Given his record, this was a surprise to everyone who heard about it.
After completing the First Sergeant’s Academy in Munich, Cornett advanced another step and served with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces, Europe. When Cornett retired, he had more than 20 years of active duty.
Looking back at the trial in Vietnam, it is apparent that the court-martial members were impressed with Cornett’s Army service, despite the serious nature of the fragging and drug charges. It was not unusual for career soldiers to have two or even three one-year tours in Southeast Asia, but it was rare for any GI to serve more than six years in South Vietnam—all in dangerous combat-related assignments. The jurors also knew that Cornett was decorated for gallantry and had qualified for elite airborne, Ranger and Special Forces duty. They clearly did not want to issue a punitive discharge that would stain his record.
Nevertheless, it is likely that jury members would have been surprised to hear that a man imprisoned for attempting to kill a superior commissioned officer was eligible for retraining and restoration to active duty. They probably would have been more surprised to learn that he retired as a senior NCO.
Cornett’s autobiography, Gone Native: An NCO’s Story, subtitled “an uncensored, unvarnished tale of one soldier’s seven years in Vietnam” was published in 2000.
Fred L. Borch is a lawyer and retired Army officer who serves as the regimental historian for the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Alan Cornett, as a sergeant first class, was one of his instructors at Pathfinder School at Fort Benning in 1983. Borch was unable to reach Cornett for this article.