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Bizarre, Unexplained Marine Colonel 'Suicides'
Tim King Salem-News.com
(SALEM) - What explains the tendency of 'full-birds' in the Marine Corps- men who attained the rank of colonel, to commit suicide when they are at the pinnacle of a spotless career?
It is a haunting question that should be studied and the results published. There aren't very many Marine colonels in the first place. One source I checked (ask.metafilter) states that the Marine Corps is authorized to maintain 35 brigadier generals, the rank of colonel is the next one down, you get the idea.
Also demanding research, are the amazing macabre things that these Marine colonels manage to do when they commit 'suicide'. The stories conjure up visions that Hollywood could scarcely replicate; even if the official government stories seem like they evolved from rejected 'b' movie scripts.
The government says Colonel James Sabow committed 'suicide' in 1991 at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. This would have had to have been an extremely technical 'suicide'; one that would have taken great, painstaking planning. According to the official reports, this man who flew 220+ missions in Vietnam and was a proud father, husband and third Marine in charge of his base, shot himself in his own backyard when he was actually either dead, or near death.
A unique story indeed. Exactly how Mr. Sabow managed to do this is something the government could never explain, however they did accept the matter as a 'suicide' without any argument.
In fact the government was so troubled by this Marine Colonel's death, that they sent a special medical examiner to Orange County, California to conduct the autopsy. This was a highly unusual matter as the procedure is always handled locally, including when the clients are deceased Marines, but not in the case of Col Sabow.
A review of this Marine officer's history shows a military record that was absolutely perfect right until the very end. Col. Sabow was one of the Marine pilots in charge of the program to integrate the 'Harrier' aircraft into the Corp's flight inventory. In Vietnam he flew the A6 Intruder attack jet surviving many harrowing missions.
However toward the end Col. Jim Sabow did develop a sort of personality problem. Instead of adhering to rules others in command of the base were following, he displayed an extremely stubborn attitude and refused to keep in step when he learned that planes carrying drugs flying north from Nicaragua were landing at El Toro in the middle of the night.
This was obviously a continuation of the Oliver North/Ronald Reagan drugs for weapons program known as the 'Iran-Contra' affair and the fact that it was continuing into the early 90's after being fully outed and busted, for some reason became a sort of obsession for Col. Sabow.
According to his wife and others close to him, he was told to be quiet and then suddenly... the Marine Corps made quite a discovery; and Jim Sabow shifted from being a highly-respected, spotless Marine Combat Veteran Colonel, to a man suspected of committing a violation of the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice).
He never did receive his court martial, so Col Sabow never had a chance to prove his innocence. The crime was something the Marine Corps takes very seriously. Sabow was accused of putting golf clubs in a Harrier jet and flying it to his son's college graduation. I mean we can't have that kind of thing going on, however Col Sabow both denied having done it and said he had the ability to easily prove the allegation false.
According to the autopsy and crime scene, James Sabow committed the act of suicide after managing to clobber himself brutally on the back of the head, what was he thinking? How did he do this? The bruising that raised out of his neck, lower head on the right side and also his upper back, is savage.
This man who had never given a sign of being suicidal a single time in his life, apparently had either a slight pulse, or no pulse, when he went into his back yard and shot himself in the mouth with a shotgun. He dropped less than an ounce of blood on the ground, proving to any investigator that he was already dead when the trigger was pulled. These Marine colonels sure have some crafty skills.
I never thought I would end up writing about Murdered Marine Corps full-bird Colonels, it just never seemed in the cards. I joined the Marines out of high school and the game of life kept me at the lowest levels of rank. To guys like me, a colonel was a couple of steps below a God.
A 2005 Marine Corps Gazette article by Lieutenant Colonel Pete Gaynor states:
For those unfamiliar with the structure and organization of Headquarters Marine Corps, Lieutenant Generals are the Deputy Commandants for Departments (PP&O, P&R etc), Brigadier Generals lead Divisions (PO, LP etc) and Colonels lead Branches (POR, LPO etc). Majors and Lieutenants Colonels are the Action Officers who keep the big machine running. The “Beltway Colonels” are tasked to generate the fire and man the tiller of the colossal beast called Headquarters Marine Corps.
When most think about the role of a Marine Corps Colonel, one most likely equates a Colonel with a leader of a Regiment or a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). All things being equal, expectations of Marine Corps Colonels are normally relatively high. As 'the Senate of our Corps,' Colonels are supposed to provide 'the leadership and wisdom required to improve our Corps of Marines.'
Lt Col Pete Gaynor goes on to say that "Colonel Branch Heads or 'Senators' are supposed to be the Marine Corps’ driving force, purveyors of plain unvarnished truth and the untiring energy that quickly and precisely resolves emergent problems."
It seems in a way that being a purveyor of unvarnished truth and a quick problem solver could lead to serious conflict.
Take the case of Marine Colonel Michael Stahlman who you might say was the ultimate Marine officer. Enrolled in Marine military school from the age of 14, Col Stahlman's father was one of the founding members of President Kennedy's Peace Corps. After becoming an officer in 1985, Michael Stahlman went to flight school and became qualified to fly the F-4 Phantom jet fighter. Then his career took a turn and he became increasingly involved in the legal aspects of the United States Marines. Along the way he became parachute qualified and as a result, his uniform bears both the wings of a Naval Aviator, and the jump wings synonymous with the legendary Marine Corps Force Recon Battalions. Those two areas, aviation and infantry, could not be any farther apart in the Corps.
At the age of 45, this Marine Colonel was about to begin a new life as a civilian with his wife and daughters who he always stayed in touch with via email and phone, according to Cilla McCain, author of Murder in Baker Company: How Four American Soldiers Killed One of Their Own. She's researching the story behind Col Stahlman's death and talked about her work in a recent interview with an Encino, California radio station.
This Marine officer was preparing to head home on leave, and he was close to retiring from his career in the military, according to McCain, when his untimely death came out of nowhere on 31 July 2008. Oh, and it was also a 'suicide' the Marines said. It happened at Camp Ramadi in Iraq's Anbar province, a place I flew into as a reporter covering the Iraq war about a month after the Colonel's death.
McCain explains that right-handed Stahlman suffered a gunshot wound to left side of head. His wife just never believed that it was suicide, and she was given the standard regard, and treated as a 'widow in denial' by a government content to view this warrior's death simply as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His wife and McCain both seem to believe there is quite a bit more to it.
"This man was at the forefront of some of the most dangerous events going on in terms of corrupt contractors and some of the legal cases such as Haditha that have taken place with our Marine Corps," McCain said in the radio interview.
"You can't spit without hitting a reason why somebody may have wanted to kill him. That being said, personally, I believe that because of his duties at Camp Ramadi, he was the rule of law coordinator, it was his responsibility to make sure that Iraq had a functioning, legal government, and he also had to make sure that our contractors and people were paying their bills and keeping track of the money. In this war that makes a lot of enemies."
And there was one more vital link to this story regarding Col Stahlman and his investigation of contractors, McCain said, "There were billions of dollars disappearing."
Hmmm, sounds quite a bit like Col Sabow's situation doesn't it?
These Marine colonels apparently get really bent on 'fact finding' and truth, and we all know truth can be a painful weapon.
Back in 1991, Col Jim Sabow's wife overhead a heated argument between her husband and another colonel from El Toro about illegal activities in the base, the day before his 'suicide'. She recalls the other colonel telling her husband that he "will never receive a court martial" - inferring that Sabow would never live to tell his side of the story to a judge.
In Michael Stahlman's death, McCain said, "I do know that he had had a meeting the day before, with whom I don't know, but they said he was uncharacteristically angry with someone."
So each Marine colonel had a bitter argument with a fellow Marine (Presumably a Marine in Stahlman's case) the day before their 'suicide'. Both Marine colonels had uncovered very serious allegations against others involved in high-stakes crime running on the back of the U.S. government through official channels.
The officers also both did really bizarre things when they 'suicided' themselves.
In the case of the 2008 Iraq death, McCain said of the government's 'suicide' conclusion, "For their hypotheses to be correct, Michael Stahlman would have had to have shot himself, held his eyeball in the socket as it hung out, and gotten up and moved around the room and made many different movements". Apparently the inside of his room was a real mess. To some investigators this just might be a sign that a severe struggle took place.
At this point, out of respect, I drop my charade of this 'suicide' nonsense and we'll turn serious because I could not respect these men and their legacies more than I do. I hope I was able to communicate the utterly ridiculous nature of these 'suicide' cases and also that these stories make those responsible lose sleep at night.
What it takes to become a colonel of Marines is such a large task that I can't even imagine it.
The responsibility would be overwhelming and the temptation to simply play the 'game' rather than follow the book must be tough to say the least. But those who play it are indeed the sickness that always infests the Marines and while some of the nation's finest emerged from these ranks, others are attracted to the Marines for all the wrong reasons. They say absolute power corrupts, absolutely. It isn't hard to imagine.
McCain says Col Michael Stahlman was targeted and that her gut tells her it was a fellow Marine.
"I think that he uncovered something, and I think it was somebody he knew, and I think they shot him." In the case of Col Sabow, it was definitely more than one person, Col Stahlman's case, I would assume, without knowing any details, would have had to have required multiple assailants also.
Of course one asks the question in Col Stahlman's case, 'was there a suicide note'? It seems fair to expect that any person doing this would take the time to hand write a note and clear the air about what they are about to do. McCain says that isn't what happened.
"There was a note, it was an email, when we received copies of the email we received two different dates and times for when it was sent."
That very morning, 12 hours before this terrible 'suicide' email arrived in Kim's mail, she had received a different email which was part of their regular communication pattern, McCain said.
"They emailed regularly, every day, sometimes twice a day. Earlier that day he was in a great mood, 'I can't wait to get home' - everything. He had just returned from a trip from Fallujah and she had sent him an email saying, 'Hey how are you, how did it go?' and he comes back with this email saying, 'Hey everything's great'"
McCain says there were no signs of depression and this, with a case involving an extremely well-accomplished high-ranking officer who was on the verge of returning home to his beautiful wife and family.
"Forensic science has proven that it was impossible". She says that due to present legal wrangling, she can't divulge much of what she knows, but she is dialed into the story and will eventually be able to.
Regarding Kimberly Stahlman, McCain says, "That woman has been remarkable in her dedication, proving that her husband was murdered, and she has proven it with forensic science, and of course the Marines are not budging, they won't change the cause of death."
We have written about James Sabow at length and what has turned into a lifetime struggle for his brother, Dr. David Sabow, who has never stopped working toward the day that Col Sabow's death is properly investigated for what it is; a Murder committed out of retaliation for his willingness to tell the truth. We can fool ourselves into believing that our government is incapable of such things but we are just that if we do... fools. We are equally wrong for ever believing that there is no point to our efforts at exposing these matters. Salem-News.com Reporter Bob O'Dowd recently completed an excellent three-part series on Col Sabow, and there is a Facebook page you can sign to aid Col Michael Stahlman's widow as she travels the same extremely difficult and terribly important road to justice. In any case, it will never be enough for these families.
This is the page for all Salem-News.com articles about MCAS El Toro
Tim King: Salem-News.com Editor and Writer
Tim King has more than twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines. Tim is a former U.S. Marine.
Tim holds awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Silver Spoke Award by the National Coalition of Motorcyclists (2011), Excellence in Journalism Award by the Oregon Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs (2010), Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), First-place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991); and several others including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Tim has several years of experience in network affiliate news TV stations, having worked as a reporter and photographer at NBC, ABC and FOX stations in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. Tim was a member of the National Press Photographer's Association for several years and is a current member of the Orange County Press Club.
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