April 24, 2006

Give Another Hoya!

April 20, 2006

By John Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

Capt. Robert Patrick McGovern '89 brandished a M-4 rifle, cocked it and squeezed the trigger, twice. Holding that weapon of murder, he re-enacted a scene of chaotic horror that had shaken Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait on March 22, 2003.

In the dark of night, Sgt. Hasan Akbar had gone on a rampage, rolling grenades into tents where comrades slept and firing his M-4 rifle at fellow soldiers. Akbar shot Army Capt. Christopher Seifert in the back, killing him. Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone died from 83 shrapnel wounds. Fourteen other "Screaming Eagles" from the 101st Airborne Division were wounded.

"Sgt. Akbar executed that attack with a cool mind," argued McGovern, a prosecutor with the Army Judge Advocate General's Corps. "He sought maximum carnage," McGovern emphasized during his powerful closing before a 15-member military panel seated in a Fort Bragg courtroom a year ago.

As the guilty verdict was read, Capt. McGovern turned to face the widow of Capt. Seifert. Mrs. Terri Seifert and McGovern locked eyes and nodded to each other. He had delivered Akbar's conviction as promised.

McGovern argued the guilt phase of the trial. Capt. John Benson delivered the opening statement. And the lead prosecutor, Col. John Mulligan, presented the penalty phase. Akbar received a sentence of death by lethal injection, which has been appealed.

"On the eve of battle, in a sneak attack, Sgt. Akbar turned on his own. What could be worse than that?" McGovern asks. "This will be `The Case' used to prove that justice sometimes demands the death penalty."

For almost two years, McGovern had pushed himself to the brink of obsession on the Akbar case. He had trouble sleeping. He lost weight. For McGovern, his investigation became a disturbing journey into a twisted mind whose dark passages were festering with evil intentions.

He poured through 13 years of Akbar's shocking diaries. One 1997 entry reads: "My life will not be complete unless America is destroyed." McGovern interviewed people who had known Akbar since childhood.

"I know more about Hasan Akbar than I want to know," he says.

McGovern's main job was to prove that Akbar had committed an act of deadly treachery with premeditation. To obtain the death penalty, he had to refute the defense's contention that Akbar was mentally ill and--as a Muslim convert--confused and conflicted by the war in Iraq. McGovern artfully used the words in Akbar's own diary to prove murderous premeditation.

The guilty verdict came down on Thursday, April 21, 2005.

The next day, Capt. McGovern requested a transfer from Fort Bragg to Iraq. "Are you crazy?" fulminated a ranking officer.

 

*****

At age 30, Rob McGovern was gleefully crossing the bridge from his relatively carefree days of athletics and academia to an unknown future.

In that May of 1997, McGovern was enshrined into the Holy Cross Varsity Club Hall of Fame. Surrounded by teammates like his steadfast pal Tom Kelleher '88 from the glory days when the Crusaders ruled Division 1-AA football. Embraced by his parents and eight siblings. And, as usual, standing at his side was his uncle, Rev. Earle Markey, S.J., a 1953 basketball All-American and a compassionate Jesuit who has helped troubled souls, from the Philippines to Mount St. James.

McGovern, a determined guy with a wonderful sense of humor, had enjoyed the sunshine of his life. He had been a high school hero. He had earned All-America honors as a Holy Cross football captain and linebacker. He had competed four seasons in the NFL for Kansas City, Pittsburgh and New England before giving up his fading hopes of becoming more than just a special-teams' extra. He had graduated from Fordham University Law School and landed his dream job as a special narcotics prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. And, for good macho measure, in 1997, McGovern enlisted in the Army Reserve.

"At that moment, I thought all the real excitement in my life was behind me," McGovern recalls.

Little did he know what daunting challenges loomed.

 

*****

In Manhattan, McGovern was relishing his life as an assistant district attorney. From 1997 through 2001, he was in the big leagues of crime-fighting. He would team up with undercover cops to target high-crime areas and formulate strategies to bug, bust, arrest and convict drug dealers. "I got thrown into the deep end fast,'' McGovern says. "But I loved the action."

Then lightning struck.

On Sept. 11, 2001, McGovern was emerging from a subway station when he was overwhelmed by the sight of clouds of toxic dust billowing from the shattered World Trade Center.

Like countless others, he found himself, like some helpless refugee, walking in disbelief up Third Avenue, five miles back to his East Side apartment.

"I sat on my couch, angry and upset," he says. "I wanted to do something to help."

The next morning, he put on his Army uniform and headed back to Ground Zero. "It was chaotic," he says. "Everyone wanted to help. I stood in line. Because of my uniform, finally, I got waved forward."

McGovern was in the fray, no longer on the sidelines, gladly taking orders from front-line firefighters.

For four days, trauma was his constant companion. He saw body parts and thought "this is someone's loved one." He couldn't imagine a family going to a funeral without a casket.

On Thursday, he uncovered a badly disfigured body. A medic stood on the other side of a huge pile of rubble, unable to provide help. McGovern knew he must act alone. In great anguish, he filled a plastic body bag and dragged it out to be identified.

On Friday, like many other rescue workers, he shook the hand of President George Bush.

Later, McGovern would learn Sean Lynch, a Cantor Fitzgerald broker with whom McGovern enjoyed dinner just two weeks earlier, had died in the terrorist attack. So had a fellow JAG officer, Bill Pullman.

Rob McGovern knew what he had to do.

The next week, he called his Army Reserve Unit, volunteering for active duty in the 18th Airborne Corps. His days as a Manhattan assistant district attorney and a weekend warrior were over.

 

*****

After eight months of intense training--jumping out of planes, crawling through rugged terrain and honing his combat skills--JAG officer McGovern headed out for Afghanistan.

McGovern helped to create an Afghan National Army. He arranged government funding, laid plans for when and where to deploy troops, and helped establish a central authority that would prevent warlords from spinning out of control. He tailored rules of combat and answered legal questions about pursuing the enemy across borders. He lectured soldiers about the first law of warfare: Always defend yourselves.

He dealt with violence daily. Taliban fighters would launch rockets at his compound, once missing, by the length of a football field, the tent where Capt. McGovern slept.

Four Afghan youngsters, scavenging a practice range for scrap metal to sell, were killed by Army mortars. McGovern was assigned to defuse this volatile situation. He expressed deep regret to the Afghan families of the victims. He helped arrange for the building of a school that was dedicated to the dead youngsters. "We couldn't undo the tragic accident," he says. "But we could show we cared."

Capt. McGovern had become a wartime diplomat.

 

*****

After his 2005 victory in the Akbar trial, the Army JAG assigned McGovern to prosecute war crimes in Iraq's Central Criminal Court, which operates under an Inquisitional System of Justice: one judge, no jury, a prosecutor, a few witnesses, a defense lawyer and an English-Iraqi interpreter.

"Sometimes I'd handle three trials a day," says McGovern. In five months McGovern won more than 400 convictions, many for murder and attempted murder. He had a 90 percent conviction rate against grenade-throwers, bombers, terrorists and insurgents of every description.

He stood nearby as four mortars exploded at the United States Embassy in Baghdad. He was there when a suicide bomber drove into a crowd where an American soldier was handing out candy to Iraqi kids. The soldier and 18 youngsters died.

McGovern had to search for justice in a minefield of mindlessness.

 

*****

Today, McGovern, 39, is back home, based in Washington, D.C. He travels with an Army JAG team training other military lawyers how to prosecute at home and abroad.

"I have experienced significant events in my life and, hopefully, it has made me a wiser person," he says. "There are serious consequences to every decision. That drives me to work so hard at my craft."

Just doing his job, he says. Just doing his duty to community and country. Again trying to be a part of a winning team. A Crusader, still wondering what "real excitement" in his life lies ahead.

John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.