The First Mother Who Fought the Military to Find Out How Her Son Died

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Robin R. Cutler is the author of A Soul on Trial: A Marine Corps Mystery at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Rowman & Littlefield, October 2007).

One hundred years ago, across a creek from the Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland, a 22-year-old marine died during a fight with his fellow student officers. A handful of these young men immediately claimed Lieutenant James N. Sutton committed suicide; within 36 hours a swift and efficient investigation confirmed their story. Newspapers on both coasts proclaimed that Sutton shot a bullet through his brain, though a few reports hinted that mysterious circumstances surrounded his death.

But then something astonishing happened. The dead lieutenant's mother saw a "vision" of her son who denied the charge, and asked her to clear his name. Fueled by her Catholic faith (suicide was a mortal sin) and her son's apparent postmortem appearances, Rosa Sutton began a crusade to save his soul. Her spiritual journey soon became a political one and her determination to learn the truth about her son's death exactly parallels that of several other mothers who today seek their own answers from America's armed services. It is worth asking why.

Rosa was born in 1860 and during her lifetime women secured their right to speak in public; America's newspapers became a vigorous force for reform."There is nothing which will make the eagle shriek louder than the shadow of a muzzle for the press," John Given declared in 1907 in Making a Newspaper. And so, empowered by the forces of change that swirled around her, and possibly for the first time in American history, this Oregon mother traveled 3000 miles to confront the United States government in a military courtroom. Insisting that "governmental actions should be neither secret nor unjust," Rosa told a confidant, "if we cannot get justice through the courts every newspaper in the United States shall have the facts as we have them and then see what the opinion of the world will be."

The Sutton case became a national sensation as members of Congress, high-ranking military officials, attorneys doctors and ultimately the Cardinal of the Catholic Church were caught up in the question of what had really happened to Lieutenant Sutton. There was no question of friendly fire; this fratricide might have been homicide. If that were the case, Lieutenant Sutton's soul could get to heaven. Big-city papers across the country put this case in their headlines for months as Americans from all walks of life acquired a stake in its outcome. Then as now military justice came under scrutiny. But a century ago this case was remarkable according to the press (although it was also often compared to the Dreyfus Affair.) Today, Rosa Sutton's cause célèbre --seeking truth from power -- is a familiar story in the news, a fact that is both instructive and sobering.

We can learn a lot from the timeless language used by the savvy judge advocate in the Sutton court. A 33-year-old hero who had lost his left arm in the Boxer Rebellion, Harry Leonard declared in no uncertain terms "the hallowed grave of a dead son is no more sacred than the grave of a military reputation and there are great many record military reputations at stake in this hearing." The accused marines' attorney, Arthur Birney, fully recognizing the case was being tried in the court of public opinion, appealed to his fellow citizens and the military court: "We know what an officer's honor is to him. It cannot be stained without the same kind of injury which is done to a woman's honor when it is stained . . . . "

The case became a battle between protagonists who fought hard for sacred reputations and for their own versions of the truth. What really happened to "Jimmie" Sutton became less important than his mother's right to know; the complexities came out when millions of Americans tried to sort out the conflicting testimony in the case. A century later America's armed forces have become more used to the scrutiny of multiple forms of media. Over the past year America's journalists have followed three families whose military sons died under questionable circumstances. Two of these young men's mothers appeared on a PBS weekly news program, NOW last year. Their battle "to get the truth from the military" (in this case the Army) has followed a course eerily similar to Rosa Sutton's both in their language and the hurdles they faced.

Freed from the limitations of pen and paper, these women telephone and email, seeking answers in the face of murky, inconsistent and false information. Peggy Buryj filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Army reports about her son Jesse, only to learn he died from friendly fire from Polish troops -- a point contested by another soldier from her son's unit. Karen Meredith sought help from a member of Congress and finally learned that her son, Ken Ballard, died from "an accidental discharge by an unmanned machine gun." These mothers fierce conviction that they have the right to know exactly what happened, has fueled their response to tragedies that are part of today's discourse about secrecy in the government. "I should not have had to beg, scream, cry, call politicians, play the political game," said Buryj, "I shouldn't have to be going to the media."

Neither mother, overwhelmed by a very private grief, wanted to use the media; nor did the parents of Patrick Tillman, who still seek answers to more and more questions about how their son died. As did Rosa Sutton, Mary Tillman and her family unwillingly went to the media and they have called for a congressional investigation. Current news articles indicate the search for the truth about a death that occurred in 2004 may have only just begun; not only did several officers fail to give an accurate account of Tillman's death, the language used as America tries to sort out this case exactly mirrors the language used in the Sutton case investigations in 1907 and 1909. The thousands of newspaper articles and court documents surrounding the Sutton case reveal how hard it was and should still be to sort out the facts in an emotionally charged story while it is happening. Media coverage and congressional investigations can be essential safeguards to democracy but accusations of cover ups are only part of the story. Misleading information and misrepresentations must be corrected and it may only be possible to fully understand them over time -- not while they are what Eugène Fidell has called the "perceived outrage of the moment."

The whole truth, as far as it can be known, may only be understood when these cases are put in context decades from now -- when misleading testimony can be weighed in the context of how military justice and professional military education functions, what private battles individual officers faced, what allegiances they had, and even what factors might have affected their recollections of what happened when they were under fire.

As was true of Rosa Sutton, mothers who face evasive answers in the face of devastating tragedy are patriotic and immensely proud of their sons, who, in turn, were proud to be in the military service. But their grief has been hardened by anger and skepticism about institutions that depend on the absolute loyalty of their recruits to each other. "Men love to believe that women love warriors," author Richard Rayner wrote in 1997. But there are maternal truths that may never exist in complete harmony with a warrior ethos.

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