The war in Vietnam was over a year ago,” says the tough, cigar-smoking two-star, “but this is the windup.” Army Maj. Gen. Eugene Forrester is overseeing the military’s side of President Ford’s amnesty program. At ramshackle Camp Atterbury in Indiana, military deserters who have been in jails or who have surrendered come to be “processed” and receive their alternative service assignments. The program has been both disappointing and educational for the 48-year-old general, who commands nearby Fort Benjamin Harrison—a major army records center.
“There’s a lesson to be learned from these people,” says General Forrester. “Inevitably, these boys [deserted] because of poor leadership. They had problems, maybe with their wives or families, and when the military couldn’t respond fast enough, they took off.”
Thus far, Camp Atterbury has processed more than 1,100 deserters—admittedly, only about 10 percent of the total. Forrester and the Pentagon had expected many more, and had purposely set up the processing center away from a regular army base to avoid any friction between the deserters and regular soldiers. To staff the camp, Forrester hand-picked a cadre of 450 men, most trained in race relations and psychology. There have been no incidents, but because the flow of deserters has slowed to a trickle, the processing center is being shifted to Fort Benjamin Harrison. There, as at Atterbury, each returning deserter is interviewed and his explanation of why he fled included in a tan file folder along with the military’s record of his service. Each case is then presented to the Joint Alternate Service Board—the men call it “Jazbo”—which recommends a term of alternative service of up to 24 months. (The Presidential Clemency Board in Washington rules on convicted draft evaders.)
“I expected to see stereotypes,” the general says, “men who harbored real political hatred. But I realized the first day the reservoir of tragedy in each of these young men—in their faces, their bearing, even their dress. They had run, changed jobs, lied—they had to. I think they are glad to get it off their backs.”
Forrester, a 26-year career soldier, was a West Point classmate of Alexander Haig and current academy commandant Sid Berry (PEOPLE, Sept. 2, 1974). A veteran of Korea and the Dominican Republic, he served two tours in Vietnam, where he was a brigade commander and later assistant division commander of the 1st Air Cavalry. Married to the widow of a fellow officer who was killed in a helicopter crash (Forrester’s own wife was also killed in an air accident), they have six children, three from each marriage. “I have a 19-year-old son, Chip,” says Forrester, “and he and I have had extremely volatile dialogue over the war in Vietnam. He isn’t a militarist in any sense of the word.” The general looks out the window at a newly arrived batch of deserters. “In fact,” he says, “I’m not sure that under other circumstances something like this couldn’t have happened to him.”
Russell Wilson, 20, from Albany, Ga., joined the army in 1971 when he was 17. Six months later he deserted. “I just didn’t feel it was right to kill someone,” he says now. Assignment to Vietnam was “being sent to a place to shoot a guy who could never threaten you, to some weird place to fight and die.” He kept on the run, never staying in one place longer than a couple of months, though he did manage to obtain security clearance for a job at a nuclear power plant in Maryland. Now a teamster, Wilson married a 23-year-old divorcée last year. This August he was stopped for a traffic violation in Michigan while taking one of his two stepchildren to the hospital, and was recognized as a deserter. Wilson was ordered to perform 24 months alternative service.
Harold Cummings, 27, is a machinist from the Baltimore ghetto. He had already honorably completed one tour with the army and decided to join the marines in 1972 because he “wanted something different.” But when his mother became ill, he says, the marines wouldn’t give him leave and he deserted. He was arrested earlier this year, and when the amnesty program began he was in the brig at Camp Lejeune, N.C. “People should realize we’ve been through enough,” says the natty Cummings. “Most of us are tired of running.” Nonetheless, the “ghost board” specified that Cummings devote the full 24 months to alternative service.
Phillip Rogers, 22, of Freer, Texas, near Laredo, wore a Stetson and boots to Atterbury. A skinny (6’2″, 160-pound) oil field roughneck, Rogers had been in the army more than two years when he deserted in 1971. He was an infantryman in Vietnam, and when his mother took sick Rogers went home to Freer and stayed there. “Everybody knew I was AWOL,” he says. “They figured I had a good reason; I’d served two years of good time and my Momma was sick and I needed to help support the family.” He says he filed income tax returns every year but was not arrested. “I figured if they had wanted me, they’d have come and got me.” He turned himself in and received 11 months of alternative service.
Michael Tooman, 25, from Pontiac, Mich., enlisted in the army in 1969 after he was drafted so he could train as a mechanic. But opposed to the war and worried about family problems, he deserted. He dodged the law for five years, finally settling in Seattle as a mechanic and carpenter. He is married, with a baby due in two months. When the amnesty program was announced he surrendered—and was so upset he couldn’t eat for two days. What he really wants to do, he says, is stay in Washington state and start a buffalo herd. He has been told to do 22 months of alternative service.
Anthony Zambas, 24, from Aberdeen, Wash., joined the army in 1970. After basic training and 15 days of artillery instruction at Fort Sill, Okla., he deserted. “I wasn’t threatened by the Vietnamese,” he says. “Besides, I figured this war was a big moneymaker for some people—but not for me.” He returned to Aberdeen and lived with his mother (who lost her first husband in World War II). “If I had gotten orders to Vietnam,” Zambas says, “she would have lied and killed to keep me home.” He stayed there until Ford’s amnesty program was announced, then turned himself in. Zambas compliments the military on the “decency and mercy” with which he and the other deserters have been treated, but he adds, “Society ain’t doing us no big favor; they got the word—we were sent by Jerry.” Zambas was ordered to do 24 months alternative service.