Soldier's drug use, suicide attempt bring jail time, discharge
WüRZBURG, Germany — Grieving for a soldier cousin killed in the war and saddled with a no-show sergeant, Pfc. Garlena Tavai-Fiotoa flooded her sadness with half a fifth of contraband vodka one day in Mosul, Iraq.
Caught drunk and disgraced, Tavai-Fiotoa retreated the next day — Sept. 21, 2004 — to her room. She sat on her cot, slipped a magazine into her M-16 rifle, pointed the muzzle at her heart, and pulled the trigger. The first shot misfired, but the second one blew a hole in her chest. When soldiers pounded on her door, she staggered, bleeding, to answer, and she was rushed to the emergency room.
“I was surprised I was still alive,” Tavai-Fiotoa, a motor pool mechanic with the 67th Combat Support Hospital, said Thursday at her court-martial in Würzburg.
Tavai-Fiotoa, 21, pleaded guilty to charges of inflicting injury upon herself and drinking while in Iraq, and to charges of possessing marijuana and Ecstasy pills while home in Germany. The military judge, Col. R. Peter Masterton, sentenced her to two months in prison, forfeiture of $1,646 in pay, reduction to E-1 and a bad-conduct discharge.
Tavai-Fiotoa said she quit college for the Army after her freshman year because of the example of her orphaned cousin, Pfc. Sheldon Hawk Eagle, 21, who had been like a brother to her while they grew up.
Then he died in a helicopter crash in Mosul in November 2003. While home for his funeral, it haunted her to learn she would deploy with her unit to Mosul in two months. Her command denied her request to be assigned elsewhere, according to her attorneys.
“She wasn’t personally, psychologically, emotionally prepared to go downrange,” said Sgt. Thomas Reed, her supervisor before and after the deployment. “If it was my call, she wouldn’t have deployed with us.”
Her job was to maintain the generators that powered Forward Operating Base Diamondback’s hospital complex. Her understaffed unit of four soldiers suffered under a sergeant described by witnesses as “incompetent” and “klutzy” whose absences left her section in “disarray.” Sgt. Mark Wheeler, a shop foreman in Mosul, estimated Tavai-Fiotoa handled 80 percent of the workload herself before she broke down under the pressure in September.
“I just couldn’t handle life anymore,” Tavai-Fiotoa said.
She spent a month in hospitals before rejoining her unit in Germany, hoping to redeem herself and stay in the Army. She was among the unit’s top performers, several sergeants testified.
But after learning in May that her command had decided to separate her from the Army, she and another soldier traveled to Amsterdam for Memorial Day weekend. They bought marijuana and Ecstasy and stashed both in her gym bag. On the way home, German border police found the drugs and arrested them.
Tavai-Fiotoa’s co-counsel, Capt. Jennifer Bottoms, asked the judge to let her stay in the Army with no further punishment.
“These are the signs of a soldier who needs mental health care, not prison,” she said. “Her command let her down.”
But the prosecutor, Capt. Bradford Glendening, argued Tavai-Fiotoa can’t be trusted.
“When you’re dealing with jobs that are life or death,” he said, “you can’t screw around.”