Decades later, Marines hunt Vietnam-era deserters

Decades later, Marines hunt Vietnam-era deserters
by Bill Nichols
The photo on the left shows Ernest Johnson Jr. as he looked in 1969. On the right is the same man, now going by the name Ernest “Buck” McQueen
WASHINGTON In the summer of 1965, Marine Cpl. Jerry Texiero quietly disappeared from his California base, plagued by personal demons and a mounting opposition to the Vietnam War.

Forty years later, in the summer of 2005, Texiero now known as Gerome Conti was taken into custody by police in Tarpon Springs, Fla., after the Marine Corps tracked him down.

Thirty years after the war ended, hundreds of Vietnam-era deserters are still on the loose. Conti’s attorneys, Louis Font and Tod Ensign, say the Pentagon, and the Marine Corps in particular, are cracking down on long-term cases in an effort to warn current-day troops in Iraq against deserting…


“My view is that the Marines are trying to send a message to people in the ranks today that they, too, will be required to participate in a war, whether they think it’s illegal or immoral,” Font says.

Marine spokesman Capt. Jay Delarosa says there was nothing unusual about the treatment of Conti.

However, the Marine official in charge of bringing in deserters said after Conti’s arrest that his office was being more aggressive.

Chief Warrant Officer James Averhart, who has commanded the Marine Corps Absentee Collection Center since September 2004, told the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times that he had ordered cold cases reopened and that his squad had caught 27 deserters in his first 11 months on the job, a rate he suggested was higher than those of his predecessors. The Corps last month updated that number to 33 cases.

“I have a different leadership style than the guys who have had this job. My job is to catch deserters. And that’s what I do,” Averhart told the newspaper.

Delarosa said Averhart would not answer questions from USA TODAY. Asked whether the Marine Corps stands by Averhart’s comments, Delarosa said, “I wasn’t involved in that particular interview with CWO Averhart.” He added that the Marine Corps has “discouraged most requests for interviews because CWO Averhart has been frequently misquoted.”

Will Van Sant, who wrote the Times article, says the Marines never contacted him after it appeared.

Conti, 65, says he was surprised. “I thought they couldn’t possibly be looking for me anymore. I would think they would have stopped looking for anybody who had been gone as long as I had.”

Conti was held for five months four in solitary confinement then given an other-than-honorable discharge in January. If he had been court-martialed and convicted, he could have faced three years in the brig and a dishonorable discharge.

Another long-term Marine deserter, Ernest “Buck” McQueen, was arrested in Fort Worth in January. McQueen was Ernest Johnson Jr. when he left Camp Lejeune, N.C., in November 1969 because of concerns about going to Vietnam. McQueen, 55, also was discharged without disciplinary action.

McQueen says he didn’t take a new name to hide. His Social Security card says “McQueen.” He says he was born Ernest Johnson Jr., but when his biological father left, his mother raised her son by her married name, McQueen. When he joined the Marines, he says, they insisted he go by Ernest Johnson Jr.

The government drafted men for the armed forces during wartime from the Civil War until 1973. Conti and McQueen enlisted.

In 1974, President Ford offered clemency to Vietnam draft resisters and deserters. Only 27,000 of 350,000 eligible applied. The offer expired on April 1, 1975. In 1977, President Carter pardoned those who dodged the war by not registering or fleeing the country. Neither Conti nor McQueen applied for the Ford pardon. Both spent decades hiding their past from families and employers. McQueen kept his military experience from two wives and two children, and even Conti’s best friend in Florida, Elaine Smith, knew nothing of his history with the Marines.

McQueen says he had been in the Marines for nearly two years when he learned of the My Lai massacre in 1968, when hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were killed by U.S. soldiers. “I saw photos of guys with ears on their chains. I lost my desire to be a part of it.”

Conti says his decision to desert was a combination of lingering emotional scars from a childhood lived in foster homes and concerns about stories he also was hearing about Vietnam.

Special Agent Tom Lorang of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) says most older desertion cases are filed away after an initial investigation is completed, although some are re-examined.

Except for the Marine Corps, military officials say long-term cases normally are closed when deserters voluntarily come back in or are stopped by civilian law officials, not through efforts to track them down.

That’s not Conti’s or McQueen’s story. Conti says he was told his file was reopened and his fingerprints were run through a national database. He was in the database because he had been convicted of fraud and theft in 1998. He was on probation and paying restitution when the Marines caught up with him.

McQueen, a carpenter, says his former brother-in-law was called by Marine investigators, and he told them where to find him. “This kind of … put me in a financial bind,” says McQueen, who had been doing carpentry for a church when he was seized.

Conti has returned to his job selling boats, which his employer kept open for him while he was locked up.

“They just need to declare amnesty for everybody from a certain time back or from certain conflicts,” says Elaine Smith, Conti’s friend. “These guys … just had issues, as we all did back in the ’60s.”

Military officials maintain that those who deserted the service are liable under law, no matter how unpopular a war was. “We actively investigate all cases of desertion,” says Fred Hall, a spokesman for the Naval Personnel Command. “For each of the active deserters we have on our rolls 1,190 as of 31 Jan. ’06 there is a federal warrant out for their arrest.”


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