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thedrifter
01-23-08, 07:16 AM
Published on HamptonRoads.com | PilotOnline.com (http://hamptonroads.com)
Navy says lies brought sailor his medals


NORFOLK

On July 14, 2006, Petty Officer 2nd Class Dontae L. Tazewell stood before a jubilant crowd at Norfolk Naval Station.

There, Capt. Bruce Gillingham, deputy commander of Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, pinned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart on Tazewell's chest.

The honors recognized Tazewell for heroism in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, crediting the hospital corpsman with single-handedly rescuing six Marines and recovering the bodies of four others while under enemy fire during an ambush on March 28, 2003.

"If you want to know what honor, courage, commitment look like, you need to look no further than to Petty Officer Tazewell," Soundings magazine reported Gillingham as saying to the crowd of 150.

The problem is, it's possible that those stories of heroism are just stories.

Tazewell, 28, has been charged with forging documentation for and improperly wearing 11 different honors, including the Combat Action Ribbon, Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

The awards are related to the supposed rescue and other certificates that he allegedly falsified at a later date.

In Tazewell's court-martial, which began Tuesday at Norfolk Naval Station and continues today, the prosecution painted a picture of a young man on the verge of being kicked out of the Navy for subpar performance who created stories of himself as a hero to stay in uniform.

In his opening statement, Navy Lt. Matthew Wooten, one of the prosecutors, said "this case is about a sailor with a plan to con the Navy. This case is about stolen valor."

The defense did not make an opening statement Tuesday. The prosecution witnesses included several of Tazewell's supervisors.

Under questioning by prosecutor Lt. j.g. Allison Ward, Senior Chief Petty Officer David Short told of how, in May 2006, then-Petty Officer 3rd Class Tazewell learned he had not scored high enough for promotion to petty officer second class. Due to his time in the Navy, this meant Tazewell would have to leave.

Soon after, Short testified, Tazewell said his former duty station "had some awards" for him, including the Combat Action Ribbon, Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

"These are significant awards for anyone," said Short, who sent the award binders up the chain of command. That led to the July 2006 ceremony. The honors also gave Tazewell the bump he needed for promotion.

The following summer, Short testified, Tazewell brought him paperwork for more awards. But this paperwork was old and odd.

There was a mix of unit and personal awards on a single document, Short testified. There was also an extra space on the document, between the subject line and the first paragraph. This was a quirk of Tazewell's writing, Short said, and it made him suspicious.

By then, Tazewell had undergone counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, Short testified. As part of that, he had told the rescue story in great detail and earned the respect of his fellow corpsmen. He'd also gotten Bronze Star license plates for his car.

Two of Tazewell's direct supervisors during his 2003 Middle East deployment testified Tuesday that Tazewell was not involved in any action that would have merited the awards.

When shown Tazewell's certificates, Senior Chief Michael Smith, who oversaw enlisted personnel for Marine Wing Support Squadron 272, testified that they had multiple errors, including misstating the squadron's name and the rank of the Marine officer who headed the group.

In addition, Smith testified that none of the hospital corpsmen under him ever served with foot patrols, as Tazewell's awards stated he had done. Instead, they were stationed at air bases in Kuwait and occasionally accompanied convoys around the country.

"Basically, none of this happened," Smith testified.

In subsequent testimony, Ward asked Chief Petty Officer Santiago Chavez, Tazewell's supervisor at Joe Foss Expeditionary Airfield, to describe a photo he'd taken.

It showed the hospital corpsmen stationed at the airfield as of March 30, 2003. Tazewell is among them. Yet, according to his award certificates, he had been wounded two days earlier in the Iraqi ambush.

Tazewell said nothing in court Tuesday. At his request, he is being tried by a judge.

His attorney, Navy Lt. Matthew Cutchen, said after the hearing that Tazewell "adamantly denies the charges against him."

If convicted on all charges, Tazewell could face more than 40 years in prison, demotion to seaman recruit, loss of all pay and allowances, and a dishonorable discharge.

Matthew Jones, (757) 446-2949, matthew.jones@pilotonline.com

Ellie