WASHINGTON - John Riggs spent 39 years in the Army, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery during the Vietnam War and working his way up to become a three-star general entrusted with creating a high-tech Army for the 21st century.
But on a spring day last year, Riggs was told by senior Army officials that he would be retired at a reduced rank, losing one of his stars because of infractions considered so minor that they were not placed in his official record.
He was given 24 hours to leave the Army. He had no parade in review, no rousing martial music, no speeches or official proclamations praising his decades in uniform, the trappings that normally herald a high-level military retirement.
Instead, Riggs went to a basement room at Fort Myer, Va., and signed some mandatory forms. Then a young sergeant mechanically presented him with a flag and a form letter of thanks from President Bush.
"That's the coldest way in the world to leave," Riggs, 58, said in a drawl that betrays his rural roots in southeast Missouri. "It's like being buried and no one attends your funeral."
So what cost Riggs his star?
His Pentagon superiors said he allowed outside contractors to perform work they were not supposed to do, creating "an adverse command climate."
But some of the general's supporters believe the motivation behind his demotion was politics. Riggs was blunt and outspoken on a number of issues and publicly contradicted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld by arguing that the Army was overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan and needed more troops.
"They all went bat s- - when that happened," recalled retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, a one-time Pentagon adviser who ran reconstruction efforts in Iraq in the spring of 2003. "The military part of [the defense secretary's office] has been politicized. If [officers] disagree, they are ostracized and their reputations are ruined."
A senior officer's loss of a star is a punishment seldom used, and then usually for the most serious offenses, such as dereliction of duty or command failures, adultery or misuse of government funds or equipment.
Over the past several decades, generals and admirals faced with far more serious official findings - scandals at the Navy's Tailhook Convention, the Air Force Academy and Abu Ghraib prison, for example - have continued in their careers or retired with no loss of rank.
Les Brownlee, who was then acting Army secretary and who ordered that Riggs be reduced in rank, said he stands by the demotion. "I read the [Army inspector general's] report and made that judgment. I happen to think it was that serious. Maybe I have a higher standard for these things," Brownlee said in an interview. "I still believe it was the right decision."
Rumsfeld's office had no comment for this story, referring all questions to the Army, which issued a statement.
The two contracting infractions "reflected negatively on Lt. Gen. Riggs's overall leadership and revealed an adverse command climate," the Army statement said. "Based on the review of the investigation and Lt. Gen. Riggs's comments, the Acting Secretary of the Army [Brownlee] concluded that Lt. Gen. Riggs did not serve satisfactorily in the grade of lieutentant general."
Garner and 40 other Riggs supporters - including an unusually candid group of retired generals - are trying to help restore his rank.
But even his most ardent supporters concede that his appeal has little chance of succeeding and that an act of Congress might be required.
From the ranks
Riggs' rise to three-star general was heady stuff for a man who left the family's cotton farm in Missouri and enlisted in the Army in 1965, the same year America deployed combat troops to Vietnam. After three years as a soldier, Riggs went through Officer Candidate School and soon was piloting a twin-rotor Chinook above the central highlands of Vietnam.
On March 17, 1971, Riggs flew the lumbering, troop-carrying helicopter on a voluntary medevac mission to a base at Phu Nhon which had been under heavy attack from a battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers, according to Army records. On his first approach to the base he was forced back by enemy fire, but he tried another flight path and was able to set down on a small and dusty landing zone.
The young officer flew out 59 wounded soldiers, 30 of whom "probably would have died if Captain Riggs and his crew had not acted as they did," said Riggs' citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross, a top medal awarded for "exceptionally valorous actions."
After the war, Riggs worked his way up through the ranks in the Army, serving in Korea and Germany as well as a stint with NATO headquarters in Brussels. He commanded troops from the platoon level to the First U.S. Army, which is based in Georgia and is responsible for training National Guard and Reserve troops east of the Mississippi.
Among Riggs' accomplishments with the First Army was the largest rotation of part-time troops since World War II, when the Guard's 29th Infantry Division, which includes troops from Maryland and Virginia, deployed to Bosnia for a peacekeeping mission in 2001.
In 2001, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army's top officer, asked Riggs to take over the Army's transformation task force. The group was organized to create an Army for the 21st century, centered on the Future Combat System, a series of armored vehicles, drone aircraft and sensors that would give soldiers greater control over future battlefields.
Those who worked with Riggs, as well as his endorsement letters, say the general worked hard at trying to turn the Army into a high-tech force.
The December 2002 Scientific American magazine singled him out as one of the country's top 50 technology leaders for his work. Riggs, the magazine said, was "leading the often contentious, even acrimonious debate among military planners about how to transform today's ground divisions into high-tech fighting units of the future."
But documents and interviews reveal that some of those who worked with Riggs chafed at the constant pace of work and the authority he gave to private contractors, whom he said he relied on heavily.
Riggs himself and investigation documents say he was the subject of anonymous allegations that he was violating the Pentagon's contracting regulations and having an affair with one of the contractors.
The Army inspector general's office opened a probe in the spring of 2003. At the same time, a criminal investigation also looking at the issue of contractors was launched by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command.
Only the inspector general came back with findings of fault. An October 2003 letter from Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek, the inspector general, found two violations of contracting rules but concluded that the allegation of "an adulterous affair with a female contractor was not substantiated."
Memo of 'concern'
The report prompted Gen. John M. Keane, the Army's No. 2 officer, to write a disciplinary "memorandum of concern" to Riggs. The memo found that a female contractor was allowed to draft congressional testimony, respond to congressional correspondence and communicate with Capitol Hill staffers.
Allowing a contractor to perform functions that should have been undertaken only by government employees was improper, Keane wrote.
Also, since the contractor was serving in a role similar to that of a deputy director or executive officer, that amounted to an improper "personal services contract" that should have been filled by a government employee. Riggs was put on notice "to comply with all regulatory requirements," but Keane wrote that the memo would not be filed in Riggs' personnel records.
Riggs was also questioned in the related criminal investigation, he and his attorney said. It produced no charges and, said Rigg's attorney, Army Lt. Col. Vic Hansen, "The investigation's dead, and it's not going anywhere."
A spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigation Command said he could not comment on the status of any investigation.
Now retired, Keane said demoting Riggs based on a penalty that represents the "minimum administrative punishment" at his disposal was a "tragic mistake."
"It is outrageous that John Riggs was reduced in rank for such a minor offense, which should never outweigh his 30-plus years of exemplary service to the Army and the nation," Keane wrote in a letter to Army officials supporting Riggs' restoration as a lieutenant general.
Keane said the Army was partly to blame for Riggs' predicament because the service downsized its support personnel and forced officers to hire private contractors. "I believe we blurred the lines of contractors and department employees, so much so that many of the supervisors just saw it as one team," Keane wrote. "While John Riggs did blur those lines, we, the Army, contributed directly to that without a clear policy and clear command guidelines."
Riggs, long known for offering blunt, unvarnished opinion, wasn't chastened by the contractor probe.
He stepped on the toes of other generals in pressing for a modernized Army and advocated the planned Comanche helicopter, which he viewed as vital to the future Army. Riggs was instructed by the Army not to make a speech supporting the Comanche, which the Army decided to kill to save money.
"John Riggs had the moral courage to stand and be counted on the tough issues concerning [the Army's modernization efforts] when his contemporaries took the easy approach of agreeing with their seniors," wrote retired Army Gen. Larry Ellis, a Morgan State graduate who is supporting Riggs' return to three-star rank.
In a January 2004 interview with The Sun, Riggs said the Army was too small to meet its global commitments and must be substantially increased.
The interview made him the first senior active-duty officer to publicly urge a larger Army - and the first to publicly take on Rumsfeld and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who had repeatedly told lawmakers that such increases were not necessary.
After the interview appeared, Pentagon sources said, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz stormed into the office of the Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., and demanded an explanation for Riggs' views. Riggs said Casey called him that day and ordered him not to talk about troop increases but to "stay in your lane."
Casey, Riggs said, then asked him when he was planning to retire.
"I did become sort of a persona non grata," said Riggs.
Several days after Riggs' remarks on troop strength, Rumsfeld and other officials asked for a temporary increase of 30,000 soldiers for the Army, although they continue to argue that a permanent increase was not needed.
What's striking about the Riggs case is the comparison with how the Army and the other services have handled even more serious cases.
Seven years ago, Maj. Gen. David Hale, the Army's inspector general, was allowed to hastily retire after allegations that he pressured the wife of a subordinate into a sexual relationship. An Army investigation uncovered other affairs with subordinates' wives, and Hale was later put back on active duty and court-martialed. But it took an Army review panel another six months after his conviction to determine that Hale should be reduced by one star to a brigadier general.
Two Navy rear admirals were given letters of censure for not stopping lewd behavior at the 1991 Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas, where dozens of women were groped and fondled by Navy and Marine Corps aviators. Both admirals retired at their two-star ranks.
More recently, the Air Force removed the four top officers at the U.S. Air Force Academy as part of a housecleaning after a sex scandal in 2003. While the superintendent was demoted from a three-star to a two-star rank, the other officers went on to jobs with similar responsibilities.
In March 2004, with his mentor Shinseki gone and his own future clouded, Riggs said, he saw the "handwriting on the wall" and put in his retirement papers.
Under Army rules, a general officer must complete the retirement process within 60 days or risk reverting to previous rank. By April 3, Riggs still had heard nothing so he sent an e-mail to Casey to remind him that time was running out.
"We are very conscious of time," Casey responded, according to a copy of the e-mail kept by Riggs. "Discussed with [the assistant secretary of the Army] yesterday. I expect some movement next week."
Eleven days later, Riggs got a terse letter from Casey, saying that the acting secretary of the Army, Brownlee, was embarking on a "grade determination" of Riggs.
He had just five days to respond because Brownlee was leaving on a trip.
A couple of weeks later, on April 29, Riggs said, Casey told him in a phone conversation that Brownlee had determined that his time as lieutenant general "had not been satisfactory" and that he would retire at a two-star rank. Riggs was told to sign his retirement papers the next day so he could leave the Army by the weekend.
Brownlee still has never talked to Riggs about the decision; Brownlee said Casey would do that in his role handling disciplinary matters for general officers.
Casey, who now is the top U.S. commander in Iraq, declined through a spokesman to comment or answer e-mailed questions.
Brownlee did send the decision to reduce Riggs' rank to Rumsfeld, who could have reversed it. But he chose not to. "The only thing I heard back [from Rumsfeld's office] was that it was noted," Brownlee said.
The decision cost Riggs $10,000 to $15,000 a year in pension benefits. But, he added, "what I've lost is a lot of my personal self-respect."
In a series of interviews, Riggs said he still wrestles with why he was demoted but believes his outspokenness was part of the equation.
"Do I think it is?" he said. "I thought it must have something to do with it. You've got to do it the Rumsfeld way, or you're not going to go forward.
"When you ask a general officer, 'What do you think?' you should be able to answer candidly. I think he's politicized the general officer corps by making the personal selections of everyone."
Brownlee dismissed the contention that his actions amounted to a political vendetta. "I know that's what some of them will assert," said Brownlee, an Army combat veteran in Vietnam who was the top staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It was not political."
During his 18 months as acting Army secretary, Brownlee could not recall any other general that he reduced in rank.
Praise for Riggs
Former Army Secretary Thomas White, who was fired by Rumsfeld over policy differences and was succeeded by Brownlee, praised Riggs' work and said he found the reduction in rank puzzling. But White, a retired Army brigadier general, questioned the notion that the officer corps had suddenly become politicized.
"It's always been political," White said. "It operates in a capital filled with politicians. I don't know if it's more or less than it was 20 years ago."
Nonetheless, several senior officers said they privately fear that Riggs' treatment could have a chilling effect on the willingness of other officers to provide their candid views, forcing them instead to bend to the political winds. Five of the retired officers who wrote letters urging that Riggs' rank be restored agreed either to be interviewed or to let their letters be quoted.
One of those was Shinseki, who himself had a stormy relationship with Rumsfeld and battled with the secretary over troop levels and spending programs. At his retirement ceremony in June 2003, Shinseki warned "our soldiers and families bear the risk and hardship of carrying a mission load that exceeds the force capabilities we can sustain."
Neither Rumsfeld nor his top deputies were in attendance.
In his letter of support for Riggs, Shinseki said, "There was no one who was more professional, more honest, more selfless, more dedicated, nor more loyal to the Army and to its soldiers than John Riggs."
Riggs has become an outcast, saddled with a reduction in rank that is one of the harshest and rarest punishments in an institution built on honor and rank.
Hansen, Riggs' military lawyer, said the Army could simply have retired the general and not demoted him. "Why do you put that last knife in the back? That's petty and mean-spirited," he said. "How do you tell him he didn't deserve to be retired at three-star rank?"
Riggs has filed the paperwork to the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records, an appeal process that could restore him to three-star rank, Army officials said.
A hearing officer will review the case and make a recommendation to a three-member panel. A final decision, expected this summer, rests with an assistant Army secretary.
"It's a stretch," said Hansen, Riggs' lawyer.
The investigations have taken both a professional and personal toll on Riggs. His marriage of 38 years fell apart. Now, the former general shuttles between Washington and Florida, spending his time on consulting and real estate work.
And while he is both saddened and sometimes angry about how his military career came to a close, he still has a great deal of respect for the Army. "It's the most noble institution we've got," he said.
But Garner, the retired lieutenant general, has a more hardened view of the Army's top brass and is troubled by what happened to Riggs, "this superb soldier."
"The real tragedy here," Garner said in an interview, "is that none of the leadership of the Army has the guts to stand up and say it's wrong."
Events leading to the end of John Riggs' Army career
May: Riggs, former commander of the First U.S. Army, is appointed director of the Objective Force Task Force, overseeing Army modernization, by Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff.2003
March 20: Army criminal investigation begins into allegations of misuse of government contracts.
April: Army inspector general opens up investigation of Riggs over allegations of an adulterous relationship and improperly allowing a government contractor to perform inherently governmental functions.
Oct. 3: Riggs receives a memo of concern from Gen. John M. Keane, the Army's No. 2 officer, saying he violated two contractor rules. The memo is not placed in Riggs' personnel file.
Oct. 7: Letter from Army inspector general saying two contractual violations were substantiated. Allegations of adultery were unsubstantiated.
January: Riggs' interview with The Sun, in which he says the Army needs at least 10,000 more soldiers because it is overstretched with missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. His call for more soldiers contradicts Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who says the Army is big enough. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army's vice chief of staff, contacts Riggs and tells him to "stay in your lane" and not talk about troop needs. Casey asks Riggs about his retirement.
February: Riggs is told by senior Army officials not to give a speech in favor of the Comanche helicopter at the winter meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army. Riggs had argued that the high-tech helicopter was crucial to Army modernization. Within two weeks the Army killed the program to save money.
March 3: Riggs puts in his retirement papers and has 60 days to complete the process or he will revert to the rank of major general.
April 3: Riggs contacts Casey, telling him that time is running out for his retirement. Casey e-mails Riggs saying he is "very conscious of time" and he expects some movement within the next week.
April 14: Casey sends Riggs a letter saying that the acting Army secretary, Les Brownlee, was reviewing the retirement and would use the "memo of concern" to determine at which rank he should retire. Riggs is given five days to respond.
April 29: Riggs is notified by Casey that Brownlee determined Riggs' five years as lieutenant general were not satisfactory and he would retire as a major general.
May 1: Riggs processes out at Fort Myer, Va.
November: Riggs files a petition with the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records asking that he be restored to lieutenant general. He has 41 supporters, including Shinseki, Keane and other retired and active-duty senior officers.