Twenty-nine years ago, Randall Caudill was a Marine Corps private on a visit to his family in Ohio when he made a momentous decision.
It was 1968, a year of social turmoil. The Tet offensive jolted Americans, signaling the war in Vietnam was far from over. The anti-war movement was stronger than ever. Lyndon Johnson succumbed to the war and refused to run for a second term as president. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated.
With all of this swirling in his 19-year-old mind, Caudill, whose unit had just been ordered to Vietnam, decided not to return to his Marine Corps post here in Southern California. Instead, he, like more than 10,000 other Vietnam-era soldiers, headed north toward asylum in Canada.
On Tuesday, nearly three decades after he had deserted the U.S. armed forces, the 48-year-old Caudill was given a bad conduct discharge from the Marine Corps, something considered to be the least severe punishment that could be imposed.
He had been charged with “desertion terminated by apprehension,” an offense that carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison. Marine officials chose not to levy the more serious charge of “desertion with intent to avoid hazardous duty,” which could have led to a maximum sentence of five years in a military jail.
In a similar case a year ago, the Marine Corps granted a bad conduct discharge to Donald Bailey, a Marine corporal who turned himself in to authorities 25 years after he had deserted.
A key difference between Bailey’s case and Caudill’s was the fact Bailey returned from Canada and surrendered.
Neither man took advantage of a 1974 clemency offered by President Gerald Ford to Vietnam-era deserters if they turned themselves in before March 1975.
“This is the best result I could have hoped for,” said Caudill’s military lawyer, Maj. Daniel Lecce.
The beginning of the end of Caudill’s odyssey came Sept. 9 as he traveled from Victoria, Canada, to Port Angeles, Wash., after visiting his adult daughter on Vancouver Island in western Canada.
A routine Immigration and Naturalization Service check turned up the Marine Corps warrant for desertion, and officials took Caudill, now a grandfather who suffers from severe arthritis, into custody.
Caudill, whose lawyer described as a “quiet, small man,” surrendered peacefully and after two days in a prison cell in Washington was escorted to a brig here by Marine guards.
During Tuesday’s two-hour general court-martial, Caudill, wearing a Marine uniform, spoke in a soft voice as he responded to the judge’s questions.
In a statement, Caudill talked about his life in Canada and his 27-year marriage to a Canadian school teacher. Caudill looked frail and unsteady on his feet as told the court his arthritis made it difficult to stand for long periods.
Despite the light punishment ultimately handed down, the Marine Corps prosecutor went out of his way to stress the seriousness of Caudill’s offense.
“Desertion in 1968 was a crime. Desertion in 1978 was a crime. Desertion in 1988 was a crime, and desertion remains a crime today,” said prosecutor Maj. John Scott.
Scott said while public attitudes towards deserters may have mellowed over the years, the crime remained a serious one. Nonetheless, Scott did not seek the more severe penalties available.
Caudill, who will be paid for the days spent on the base here awaiting his fate, was expected to be allowed to return home by the end of the week.
Born in Oklahoma, Caudill was raised in Ohio where he joined the Marine Corps in 1967, just after graduating from high school. After basic training, he was sent to school for training as a radio operator. At the time of his desertion he was on a final furlough prior to leaving for Vietnam.