Slatton still fighting dischargePublished 7:03pm Wednesday, November 28, 2012
CASSOPOLIS — Steve Slatton wants his honor restored before he dies.
After 29 years and writing to five presidents, the veteran’s deteriorating health gives his mission urgency.
The 1974 Dowagiac Union High School graduate, who “feels 80,” subsists on Christian faith.
“I worked around a lot of asbestos and chemicals in the shipyard,” he said. “I’ve got mass lumps on my kidneys, in my throat and upper chest. I walk with a cane and can’t get around very well. My punishment didn’t stop the day I got released from the brig.”
“I’ve been handed a death sentence. I’ve written 84 letters concerning this since 1989. Only two presidents didn’t answer me,” George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Bill Clinton offered clemency, “which gave me some hope, but it would be an admission of guilt, and I’m an innocent victim.”
Former state Rep. Mick Middaugh referred him to U.S. Rep. Fred Upton.
“I’ve written him 24 times. He said I had to follow military procedure; in other words, a naval discharge review board (in 1991 in Arlington, Va.) and a correction board of military records. It took seven or eight years to get on the docket. Now, I’ve exhausted those and have to move into the judicial system,” Slatton said, “but I don’t think I’m going to make it to having my reputation restored. The psychiatrist I saw recommended me for a medical discharge with full military benefits, but that got put aside when two officers instigated an administrative discharge. ”
He was stripped of more than $20,000 deposited in Great Lakes Federal Credit Union from his $1,400 monthly income. “They justified it by saying I owed the bonus for my five-year re-enlistment. In 1988, they took my $477 federal income tax refund and wanted another $225 a month. They took my career, I lost everything I owned and my wife and son. It’s ridiculous.”
Joined Navy in 1978
Slatton grew up at 320 Oak St. His mother, Betty Cloud, lives in Buchanan. His brother retired in July from 26 years in the Coast Guard.
After graduating, he built houses at Sister Lakes until he made enough money to move to Florida. Then he lived with his father, stationed at Biloxi Air Force Base near the end of a 21-year career.
On Dec. 26, 1974, he started a three-year shipbuilding apprenticeship.
After his grandfather died, he moved to Missouri to be with his grandmother for five months. In April 1978, he joined the Navy. He re-enlisted for another five years on Oct. 16, 1981, receiving a $16,000 bonus.
“I was a hippie in high school,” he said Wednesday at his Cassopolis apartment he moved into in February 2010. “I found my niche in the service.”
He saw the world. Portugal, Spain, France, Italy.
In Australia, he was served with divorce papers “out of the blue. I loved my job as an operations specialist. We were the eyes and ears of the ship. I worked radar.”
Distraught, Slatton left for Dowagiac for 137 days to mend fences with his wife.
He was “UA” (unauthorized absence) and court-martialed on four charges on Feb. 11, 1982. His ship moved from San Diego to Seattle. He stayed in a cabin at Cook Lake, near the Conservation Club.
“I got drunk and smoked a little marijuana. It was stupid, but I didn’t try to hide it when I returned, so I was charged with use.
“I made a mistake,” he said, “but I faced it like a man and was punished. I didn’t have any knowledge of what went on from the time I was released from the brig until they actually handed me my discharge, March 18 to June 24.”
E-5 Slatton’s bench trial could have busted him to E-1, forfeiture of all pay, six months in the brig and a bad-conduct discharge, but the judge stripped one stripe to E-4, levied a $500 fine and gave him 45 days.
“And he retained me in the service. I got seven days off for good behavior. March 16, I called my wife from the brig. She acted distant, said she was sorry, but changed her mind. She was seeing someone else and was pregnant with his child. I had an emotional breakdown. Later, a military doctor diagnosed me with an emotional disorder. A chaplain contacted my command and got me 20 days leave. I went to my uncle’s in Palm Springs (Calif.) to transfer my stuff to Seattle. Going from 80-degree weather on my Harley, I ran into a snowstorm in the mountains.
“While being treated in Bremerton (Wash.), on May 3 they started an administrative discharge on me — but didn’t tell me, per military protocol. It sounds crazy, but two officers with a vendetta threw me out of the service on June 24, 1983 — three months after time in the brig for the exact same charges. That’s double jeopardy. They set me up for this bogus discharge. They destroyed records with incriminating evidence, but a friend who saw what they were doing made me copies. My request for help was denied in 1989, even with a congressman. I’ve remained silent 29 years, hoping to get my discharge upgraded to honorable, which would allow me to be treated for this emotional disorder.”
Mixed written evaluations laud him as highly motivated with strong duty knowledge, but found his military behavior lacking, with a short fuse he should learn to control. Being assigned menial jobs upset him. At times, he showed disrespect to superiors, but the E-3 improved. Another criticism was that, although he generally got along with other men, he distanced himself.
“I was raised a Christian,” Slatton said. “A lot of guys aboard the USS Fairfax County,” a 522-foot ship with a crew of 225, “got drunk, raised hell and chased women. I didn’t do that.”
Another praised his ability to accept people with views opposed to his own and a clean disciplinary record.
‘Five years ago I was
on top of the world’
A truck driver since 1994, he was injured on the job in the summer of 2007. His comfortable world unraveled. His refrigerated truck could haul “everything from chicken feet to hazardous material.” He is still contesting denial of disability benefits.
With his savings exhausted in 2008, Slatton lived on the streets for three months, sleeping in abandoned buildings and “warm doorways to get out of the weather.”
He took shelter in a Kalamazoo mission for a year.
In 2009, the man who once aspired to be a Navy SEAL lived in a hunting trailer without running water at Kelsey Lake.