Tuesday, January 04, 2005

In the Line of Duty

The military says he died in the line of duty. But a new lawsuit says that duty was really a day of drinking and reckless boating on the St. Croix. Whether it was all voluntary or mandatory is the question.

Under a U.S. Supreme Court decision knows as the “Feres Doctrine,” families of the military are not allowed to sue for wrongful death if it's in the line of duty. Even if duty is really a day of partying on the St. Croix.

From all accounts, Lt. Nathan Nieber would've rather spent that July 4th weekend with his fiancee. But duty called. "This was a mandatory office social function on the St. Croix. They call it mandatory fun in the military."

His guard unit's day of mandatory fun, of drinking and sunshine, would turn into a horrifying tragedy. Two boats were cruising single file down the St. Croix, when a 36-foot cruiser, piloted by Nieber's commanding officer, literally ran over a smaller 18-foot fishing boat. Five people were seriously injured. The propeller decapitated Neiber. He was 26. "You don't follow in the wake of another boat, and this is the reason. If you're in the wake, you're too close."

Lawyers for his family have now sued both the U.S. Government and the pilots of the two boats. Both sides are pointing at each other.

"We've got the U.S. Government pointing to the private individuals saying on no you were off duty and we have the off duty officers and the insurance companies saying no you were on duty."

Yet the military has been hard pressed to explain its actions. This is a sample of the heavily edited reports the lawyers have obtained under the freedom of information act.

The one thing no one questions is Neibur's record. He was top of his ranger class. He was so accomplished, the guard named a new armory hall in his honor. His family's lawyers say the legal battle is the one thing that does not honor his name.

"Lt. Neibur was a military man from day one."

The pilots of the boats, both National Guard members, were drinking, but their blood alcohol level was well below the legal limit. No felony charges were filed.

But Col. Ronald Halvorson, the pilot of the larger cruiser, pled guilty to a gross misdemeanor of reckless boating. He paid a $300 fine and did 80 hours of community service. This is the first lawsuit, but others are expected soon from the five survivors who were seriously injured.

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