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Sergeant’s ‘mistake’ changes everything
Longtime soldier can’t escape the ugly past he overcame

By Greg Bluestein
Associated Press Writer

PASCAGOULA, Miss. — He was back in uniform, back where he belonged. Twenty-seven pounds lighter. On the verge of a promotion to staff sergeant. Happy again, and sober. A man escaping an ugly past to build a respectable future.

The phone call would change everything for Pat Lett.

“Dad,” his daughter whispered, “the cops are here.”

The seven-hour drive from Fort Polk, La., to Alabama never seemed longer, but he was home by nightfall and at the county courthouse by dawn. When he walked in, officers slapped cuffs around his wrists, read him his rights and locked him away.

He’d never spent even an hour in jail, never been arrested. He was a U.S. soldier, going on 18 years. He knew right from wrong and honor from shame. The military code of conduct had been his way of life, his moral compass, and he’d followed it religiously — except during five weeks when he says depression and booze led to disastrously bad judgment.

In the Army, when you screw up you pay the price. Now Lett was learning the civilian world was not so different.

If his military accomplishments made him different from others who find themselves on the wrong side of the law, it was only in degree.

“A drug dealer with a conscience” a judge would call him.

But, Lett wonders, doesn’t conscience have a place in crime and punishment? Should one mistake ruin an otherwise good man’s life?

Bad influences

He’d chosen the right path, despite all the efforts to steer him onto another.

He grew up poor in Monroeville, a dingy southwest Alabama town, where role models were scarce but addicts plentiful.

His father was an alcoholic, his stepfather a soldier, so Lett picked the military when it came time to chart a course for his future. He joined the National Guard at 19, the Army six years later.

His uniform gave him a sense of purpose, a feeling of authority and a code of conduct to live by. Service also had its costs. Married and divorced, he had three children who grew up while he bounced between military bases. Sent to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War and to Iraq during the second, he saw combat and witnessed things he still tries to forget.

The descent

In December 2003, he decided to make a change. He went to Virginia, moved in with a girlfriend and plotted out a new life as a police officer.

Some soldiers make a smooth transition to civilian life, but Lett didn’t. He missed the military’s structure, the uniform’s prestige, his peers’ respect. He and his fiancee soon grew apart, and he left town.

A month later, he found himself back in Monroeville, back in the three-bedroom home he shared with his mom and two of his daughters, back to care for a dying father. He needed to find a new way to support his family.

As Lett would detail, his return home drove him into a deep, dark depression. Each morning, he’d take his daughters to school, then start pounding beers. In a town full of out-of-work cousins and friends, it wasn’t hard to find drinking buddies.

He’d join about a dozen guys from the neighborhood at his cousin Michael Lett’s backyard, gather around a cooler and share stories.

Federal court records outlined what else Michael Lett did with his spare time: He was a go-to guy in Monroe County for drugs, a college dropout who would buy powder cocaine wholesale in Montgomery and resell it back home for a tidy profit as cocaine or crack.

And he’d use friends and family as his agents. Lett feels like he was roped in around February 2004 when he borrowed $700 from his cousin to fix his Jeep’s transmission.

A few days later, he was asked to return the favor.

They were in Michael Lett’s backyard, as usual, when his cousin promised to forget about the loan if he helped close a drug deal.

Lett’s thoughts were a drunken jumble, he recalls now. He didn’t want to look soft. He didn’t want a loan hanging over his head. Even through his haze, though, Lett says he knew that working with his cousin was a mistake.

He just didn’t care.

So when a burgundy Honda rolled up minutes later and a man in dark sunglasses stepped out, Lett quietly handed over a small brown package to him.

The next week, the man with the sunglasses was back. Five more times, Lett would confess to “helping” out his cousin with his drug deals.

But with each sale also came remorse and guilt, he’d say. And with guilt came a refusal to accept his situation. He gave up trying to rationalize his decision. He stopped trying to blame others. He started searching for a way out.

And he kept reaching the same conclusion: His salvation was back in the military.

He stopped drinking, dropped the weight and enlisted again in October 2004.

His life in Monroeville was behind him again, along with the mistake. How could he know the man with the sunglasses was an undercover agent, and that his bad judgment was about to catch up with him?

Is reputation enough?

Before his sentencing, Lett was hopeful.

He had pleaded guilty to seven counts of drug possession. His cousin would be sentenced to prison on drug charges, but Lett was confident his sterling record would win him leniency.

At his April 2006 hearing, his military commanders testified he exemplified Army values. They praised him for taking troubled soldiers under his wing. His captain said he’d put his life in Lett’s hands.

Then Lett took the stand. “I was placed in this position because of my desperation,” he said. “I wasn’t out there trying to be some big-time drug dealer. Ain’t no way, Your Honor. That’s not my lifestyle.”

The prosecutor, John Cherry, didn’t waste the chance to question Lett again.

“When you sold to the undercover officer, it was you selling — it wasn’t Michael? Michael wasn’t with you, was he?”

Lett mumbled something, so Cherry kept pressing.

“Let me ask you this: On these occasions, Mike wasn’t standing there telling you you had to do this, was he?”

“No, sir.”

A veteran himself, U.S. District Judge William Steele seemed torn. He concluded that Lett was a model soldier, but said he had a duty as well.

“There is no way that I can go below that five-year mandatory minimum,” Steele said at the sentencing, “even if I want to.”

As Lett began to serve his time, his friends kept working to keep him out.

Matthew Sinor, a close friend who was a law student at Ohio State University, wrote a letter with professor Doug Berman questioning whether the law really demanded a five-year sentence. They argued that a “safety valve” provision in the law for first offenders allowed the judge to ignore the minimum sentencing requirements.

“If ever there’s a poster child for someone who can rehabilitate himself, this is it,” Berman would say. “He’s got his life on a better path.”

If Steele was looking for legal grounding to reduce Lett’s sentence, this was it.

Lett had served 11 days of his sentence when he heard his name rumble froms the prison’s loudspeaker. He trudged to the warden’s office.

On April 26, 2006, Lett was a free man once more.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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