US sergeant branded a coward mounts furious fightback

Combat Stress

By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angles

12 January 2004


If Jessica Lynch, the fresh-faced West Virginia teenager turned international media icon, could be described as the accidental hero of the Iraq war, then Georg-Andreas Pogany is the accidental coward.

Like Private Lynch, who became an international celebrity largely through the manipulation of the Pentagon's propaganda machine rather than anything she did or did not do on the battlefield, Staff Sergeant Pogany, hired as a translator and interrogator with US Special Forces, did nothing to seek out his poster-child status and almost certainly does not deserve the notoriety that has come his way.

Unlike Ms Lynch, though, he has no million-dollar book deals or exclusive television interviews lined up. Instead, he is back at his home base in Fort Carson, Colorado, treated as a pariah by his fellow soldiers and former colleagues in the Green Berets, his legal status in limbo and his reputation in tatters.

His story, on the surface, seems unremarkable. Last September, after just two days on active duty in Iraq, he caught sight of the mangled body of a dead Iraqi soldier inside a white body bag. The body was ripped almost in two, with a large hole and strips of ripped flesh where the man's chest should have been.

Although a gun battle was in progress at the time - he was stationed in the tense city of Samarra, within the so-called "Sunni Triangle" of central Iraq - Sgt Pogany was not himself involved in the combat. Initially, he pushed the image of the dead Iraqi to the back of his mind and continued puffing on a cigarette.

But a few hours later, the image returned and began to haunt him. He started shaking and vomiting and could not sleep. By the next morning, he thought he might be having a nervous breakdown.

One might conclude that this was a relatively routine case of combat stress. That was the opinion of an Army chaplain Sgt Pogany consulted, and also that of an Army psychologist who suggested he transfer to other, less stressful duties until the panic attack subsided and he could return to his regular job. His, they concluded, was a normal reaction to the brutality of war.

But Sgt Pogany's misfortune was to have a singularly unsympathetic commanding officer, whose first reaction was to tell him to "get your head out of your ass". It only deteriorated from there.

In short order, Sgt Pogany found himself stripped of his weapons and sent home to face a formal charge of cowardice before a court martial - a serious, and rarely prosecuted offence punishable by death.

According to an account Sgt Pogany gave recently to the Denver Post newspaper, he had begun to implement the army psychologist's advice and was feeling much better when his commanding officer took the drastic action of branding him a coward. In front of a group of lower-ranking soldiers, the commander told him "what a shit bag I am and what a fucking coward I am".

Soon, Sgt Pogany was being vilified in the US media as a disgrace to his country. One television station put his picture beside Jessica Lynch's in a split-screen montage. Pte Lynch's image was emblazoned with the word "hero", while his carried the tag "coward".

On his return to the US, he was frisked and patted down, examined at an army hospital and deemed fit for duty. His expectation at that point was to be returned to active duty - something he would not have opposed. "The soldier should be returned to duty with no change in duty status," the hospital psychologist wrote in his report.

But within a week he was instead slapped with the cowardice charge and put on humiliating cleaning duties at Fort Carson.

His legal status has steadily improved since then. The cowardice charge was dropped and replaced with a formal accusation of "dereliction of duty" - which carries a possible six month sentence in a military prison. In mid-December, that charge, too, was dropped - in effect, an admission by the military authorities that there was no case against him in the first place.

But Sgt Pogany's nightmare is far from over. His commanders could still try him on a non-judicial charge of dereliction of duty, which could lead to confinement, docked pay and rank, and a less than honourable discharge. Or they could opt to revive the court martial charges. The danger, especially, in the former case, is that the officer bringing the charges would also be the one presiding over the trial, making it almost impossible for him to clear his name.

The third option is that the case would be dropped altogether, but there is no indication such a decision would be taken quickly. Even in that best of scenarios, Sgt Pogany's reputation would be almost impossible to salvage.

"Some might say he has received national notoriety," his lawyer, Richard Travis, said recently. "How do you fix that? How do you reinstate your integrity?"

Sgt Pogany's case has elicited some sympathy in the US media - in newspapers if not on television. "The message is that under no circumstances should a man show any emotions, even in the face of the brutal events of war. Here we go again," wrote one impassioned editorialist, Philip Rose, in an upstate New York newspaper.