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New Evidence in Jailed Vet Case

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An e-mail written by a former Navy officer corroborates the account of a Vietnam-era airman who witnessed the death of a colleague killed in a gruesome C-54 aircraft accident in 1969 at a Naval Air Facility in Naples, Italy. 

The crushing death of Airman Gary Holland in the wheel well of the C-54 set in motion a chain of events that 36 years later led the US Veterans Administration (VA) and the US Atty for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in 2006 to indict and convict a veteran, Airman Keith Roberts (1968-71), diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), on charges of wire fraud, arguing that Roberts fabricated his role at the scene and his relationship with Holland, defrauding the VA. 

According to several legal documents, as the C-54 plane was crushing Holland to death and the base equivalent of a general quarters alarm was sounding, Roberts, who was on line duty, ran outside the aircraft hangar to the area where the base kept heavy equipment (fork lifts, air compressors, and trucks).

He asked personnel for a fork lift and operator, which were sent with him. Personnel positioned the fork lift under the rear edge of the plane, under a beam inside the plane and tried to use it as jacking point to life the plane off of Holland. 

Roberts told the fork lift operator to raise the forks, but they were ordered to stop by an officer who said they would damage the C-54 airplane. Roberts became upset at the order and for decades told the story of the death of Holland in anger, saying the officer believed a possible dent in the aircraft was more important than the life of Holland. 

US Atty Stephen Biskupic’s office said in a Nov. 13, 2006 press release that “Roberts falsified his role in the attempted rescue of an airman killed at Naval Air Facility Naples on February 4, 1969.”  


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The naval officer and aviator who wrote the e-mail was present at and witnessed the incident. 

But he was not interviewed by personnel investigating the accident in 1969, by VA Special Agent Ray Vasil of the Inspector General’s office in Chicago in 2005-2006, by the US Atty’s office, nor was he a witness at Roberts’ trial.  

The naval officer’s e-mail reads in part: 

“I was at NAF Naples from June 1968-71. … I think the c-54 which had the nose wheel accident was a commander middle east forces bird which was at Naples for scheduled maintenance at the time. I remember the accident. I don’t think anyone there at the time would forget it.  As I recall someone had used a screwdriver instead of the proper pin to lock the nosewheel. The maintenance officer was Lcdr Hal (Harold) Truesdale. I recall that he stopped someone from using a forklift to quickly raise the nose of the aircraft, as he said it would damage the aircraft and instead opted for having people run to the aft end of the aircraft in order to take the weight off the nose and recover the airman trapped. I am pretty sure the man died as a result of the injuries.” 

The naval officer’s e-mail supports Roberts’ version of event of the attempted use of a fork lift and the order by an officer to stop using the forklift.  

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Testimony by a naval officer on the substance of the e-mail would have likely engendered in a jury at the least reasonable doubt that Roberts lied about his role. 

Roberts and the VA 

Roberts was advised in 2002 by the late Jim Henning, a Shawano County (Wisconsin) Veteran's Service Officer, to apply for an earlier retroactive date for his PTSD disability benefits predicated in part by his witnessing Holland being crushed to death and related trauma. 

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Michael Leon is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. His writing has appeared nationally in The Progressive, In These Times, and CounterPunch. He can be reached at maleon64@yahoo.com.

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