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Army Deserter Is Jailed for Chasing the Conflicts That Steadied His Mind


DEC. 15, 2014
Second Lt. Lawrence J. Franks Jr. in Watertown, N.Y., as he awaited the end of his court-martial. He was sentenced to four years in prison Monday. Credit Jesse Neider for The New York Times

FORT DRUM, N.Y. — After graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point near the top of his class in 2008, Second Lt. Lawrence J. Franks Jr. went on to a stellar career with three deployments, commendations for exceptional service and a letter of appreciation from the military’s top general.

The only problem: None of it was in the United States military.

After being sent to Fort Drum, here in the snowy farmland of northern New York, where he was put in charge of a medical platoon, Lieutenant Franks disappeared one day in 2009. His perplexed battalion searched the sprawling woods on the post for his body.

What they did not know was that he was on a plane to Paris, where he enlisted under an assumed name in the French Foreign Legion. It was only this year when he turned himself in that the Army and his family learned what had happened.

On Monday, Lieutenant Franks was sentenced to four years in prison and dismissal from the Army on charges of conduct unbecoming of an officer and desertion with the intention to shirk duty, specifically deployment.

In this photograph provided by the French military, Lawrence J. Franks Jr., back center with gun, is seen working in Mali in 2013.

At his sentencing, the lieutenant said he left because had been struggling for years with suicidal urges that had grown so intense when he arrived as a new officer at Fort Drum that he believed if he did not change his life drastically, he would have shot himself.

During the trial, the judge barred his lawyers from using doctors’ descriptions of the 28-year-old officer’s struggles with depression and suicide as a defense. Prosecutors at the trial said the lieutenant fled to avoid deployment to Afghanistan. Lieutenant Franks’s former commander, Col. Michael Loos, testified Friday that losing an officer was a burden for a battalion preparing to deploy.

“It wasn’t helpful for a unit that was mired with a lot of turbulence at the time,” Colonel Loos said. “We had a lot to do and it necessitated strong stable leadership.”

In an interview last week at a hotel near Fort Drum, where the court-martial was held, Lieutenant Franks said that he actually yearned to go to war, but that his deployment was still almost a year away and in the meantime felt he could no longer control his suicidal urges.

“I needed to be wet and cold and hungry,” he said. “I needed the grueling life I could only find in a place like the Legion.”

In hindsight, he said, there were other options, including trying to transfer to a deploying combat unit, but at the time, he thought none would be quick enough to help him.

“I feel really bad for the pain I put on my family, the disruption to my unit,” he said. “But I don’t regret what I did — any of it, good or bad — because it saved my life.”

To those who knew him, Lieutenant Franks, who grew up in Damascus, Ore., appeared to have a perfect life. The son of a neurosurgeon, intelligent, popular and captain of his high school football team, he excelled at West Point, where he graduated in the top 12 percent of his class.

“He was in top physical shape, very smart and really he was just an outstanding guy personally,” said a fellow West Point graduate, Matthew Carney, who was his roommate at Fort Drum.

Even Lieutenant Franks’s tight-knit family did not know the depths of his despair. But since early adolescence, he said, he was consumed by near-daily nightmares, unrelenting depression and a driving urge to die. Raised a Christian, he saw suicide as a sin, but said he fixated on ways to make his death appear accidental, such as driving into a tree or jumping off a cliff.

“No matter what I did, I couldn’t find peace,” he said.

The only therapy, he said, was physically punishing training exercises with other cadets.

“Some people hate to be cold or wet, but I thrived on it,” he said. “It was almost like a drug, having that challenge and focus made the depression go away.”

After graduating from West Point, he was put in charge of a medical platoon in the 10th Mountain Division’s First Brigade Combat Team at Fort Drum, where his duties consisted mainly of updating records and attending meetings.

Away from the intensity of West Point, he said, his depression grew deeper.

He did not seek counseling, he said, because as a medical officer, he had seen other troops overmedicated and shunned by their units.

In March 2009, he was put in charge of training at a pistol range, and it seemed to him that he had found a way to make his suicide appear accidental. He planned to stumble while carrying a gun on the range, pulling the trigger as he fell.

But a few days later, after a routine call to his parents, he decided that he could not put his family through a suicide. After that call, he had what he described as an epiphany: He would join the French Foreign Legion.

“It was invigorating; I was really excited about something,” he said. “For the first time in years I wasn’t thinking about killing myself.” Two days later, he was on a plane.

“He knew he was deserting the Army and would be charged, but killing himself was a bigger sin,” said Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a retired Army psychiatrist who testified for the defense during the sentencing phase of the trial.

The French Foreign Legion was created in 1831 as a wing of the French Army made up almost entirely of foreigners. It was used to fight in remote reaches of the empire, and its practice of taking in almost anyone, no questions asked, earned it a reputation as a band of outcasts, failed revolutionaries and cutthroats.

Lieutenant Franks was taken in despite being wanted by the United States Army, and, like all other recruits, was given an assumed name. He became Christopher Flaherty and signed a five-year contract.

“We never ask where they come from, " a French brigadier general, Laurent Kolodziej, said in video testimony from Paris. “You have people knocking on the door, just make sure they don’t have blood on their hands, and we take them in. The Legionnaires, it’s about giving someone a second chance.”

The lieutenant became a lowly legionnaire second class. Being stripped of rank, possessions and identity, woken up in the middle of the night to run in the rain, deprived of sleep and food, marched for hours on end while singing the slow, sorrowful songs that are a tradition in the Legion and harangued by sergeants who knew recruits had no one to call to complain, took the focus off his inner demons, he said.

“Slowly, the depression went away,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking of killing myself anymore.”

Trained as a medic, Lieutenant Franks did peacekeeping tours in the Central African Republic and Djibouti. He was promoted and earned a number of awards for merit.

In 2013, after Islamic fighters linked to Al Qaeda took over northern Mali, he was tapped to be the personal security guard for General Kolodziej, who commanded the French Army’s response.

During the next five months, he was what the French call the general’s “shoulder” because he was at his side at all times.

“He is a man I will never forget and by whom I will always stand,” General Kolodziej said in his testimony. “He is more than a born soldier, he is a born gentleman. I would like to have 10 men like that in my team, and I would be the happiest of generals.”

The day Lieutenant Franks completed his five-year contract, in March 2014, he took off his Legionnaire’s red and green epaulets and white cap and turned himself in to the United States Army in Germany.

“To turn myself in was the happiest moment in my life,” he said. “Now I was coming home to my family and to take responsibility for what I had done.”

The lieutenant was found guilty by a military jury. On Monday, his lawyer, Louis Font, said the tough sentence showed that “the Army continues to be tone deaf to mental illness and suicidal ideation.”

His parents said they understood the Army’s need to discipline him. But his father, Dr. Lawrence Franks, had hoped the Army would return him to duty.

“It just seems like a waste not to make the most of someone who is so strong and gifted and generous,” he said late last week. “Still, my hat is off to my son. He thought this was the best choice at the time, and he saved his own life.”




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