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"The Guard is a place where a person with no other resources can come," he says. "There are lots of us who joined as privates--I joined as a private and got lucky--and have been very successful. We encourage people to go to college and be successful. We try to get them to go to school--our thesis is that if they succeed, you'll succeed."
Not everyone does succeed, of course. And sometimes when they don't succeed, they end up blaming their sergeant, captain or the Guard itself. Owens is too politic to say so, but the implication is that many of the disgruntled Guardsmen who opposed his nomination were themselves failures, men and women who've projected their own shortcomings onto Owens.
"There are some failures, but there are so many more successes it is amazing," Owens says. "Those are the people you ought to talk to, those are the people who really are the backbone of the Guard. Our status is if it doesn't work, then fix it. We have the people to prove that."
The general stands up, a signal this conversation is concluded. He is used to controlling the situation by taking charge. Through a door, one can see people waiting for him, men in uniforms with glittering insignia. Lieutenant Bienz gathers her notepad and plucks the tape recorder off the coffee table. These days the general records all his interviews, as a precaution.
After all, he has enemies.
@body:The general's enemies gather frequently to talk about their pending cases and ruined careers, plot strategies and exchange names of other people in the Arizona National Guard who feel wronged by the system. Their telephone lines sing with anecdotal traffic of promotions denied, injustices incurred and allegations of discrimination. The list of the discontented grows longer each week, as injuries and insults accumulate. They spread the word that a newspaper is working on a story about the general and the Guard. They have involved advocacy groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the G.I. Forum--a national organization concerned with the treatment of Hispanics in the military--involved in their cause. Senator John McCain's office has forwarded some of their complaints to the National Guard Bureau and, because they haven't yet received a response, says the senator is preparing to "follow up." (Ironically, McCain is also a friend of Owens and sources say he suggested to Governor Symington that Owens be reappointed.)
The general's enemies supply the names and telephone numbers of dozens of soldiers who can tell how they were cheated out of their retirement benefits, and how their superiors harassed and discriminated against them because they were Hispanic, black or female. They point out that when the general finally exits, he will collect four retirement checks from the federal government and the state. They say that the general rules through intimidation--as in the case of once-ambitious Colonel Richard Morris.
These people have styled themselves as victims, and perhaps they are. Sometimes, however, the moral force of their arguments is obscured by the gray static of military codes and regulations. They are always presenting documents with sections overmarked in yellow, as "proof" they have been wronged. But they are like the folks who see Jesus in the yucca--despite their urgent faith, some eyes remain unconvinced.
This evening there are only a few men here to talk about the problems in the Guard. John Butler and Freddie Quihuis are big men--fat boys" is Butler's unflinching description--who contend the Guard's weight requirements are selectively enforced. While sergeants Butler and Quihuis were not allowed to reenlist because they were overweight, they say other soldiers, particularly officers, were allowed to stay in the service despite severe weight problems.
"I was at the hearing to confirm Owens," Butler says, "and I pointed out one of Owens' men, a general, who wasn't in uniform. He was so fat--he couldn't have passed his physical training. He wasn't in uniform because it would have been embarrassing. Here they run Freddie and I off--and we're good soldiers, we can do our jobs--and this guy gets to slide because he's a general? I don't think so."
Captain Art Mier, compact and intense, has been waging a private war with the Guard's chain of command for almost six years. He has won some battles, but he claims with each victory has come a reprisal. Now, facing charges of unethical behavior for allegedly cheating on a correspondence course, his status as both a federally commissioned officer and a full-time civilian employee of the Guard is tenuous. Even though the National Guard Bureau recently overturned a ruling that found Miers guilty of unethical conduct, he says he expects more reprisals. Over the years, he has developed a lawyerly mien and a growing list of disgruntled Guardsmen who feel they have been victimized by cronyism or the "old-boy network."
Mier charges that Hispanics such as himself have been systematically denied promotions and that Owens has--perhaps innocently--stacked his staff with officers unsympathetic to discrimination claims.
While federal law and service regulations prevent General Owens or anyone else in the Guard from directly responding to individual cases, there are many in the Guard who know Butler, Mier and Quihuis, and some who consider them "latrine lawyers," troublemakers who hide in the dense thicket of military regulations in which they swear they're trapped. For others they are something like heroes of the Resistance, underground guerrilla fighters. They all say they love the Guard, but they hate what it has become--the general's dread-sodden fiefdom, where the favored are granted rank and privilege beyond their due and dissenters are punished. They are part of the smoke to which Owens has promised to pay more attention.