THE U.S. ARMY UNIFORM HE WORE FOR 19 years is packed away. His once-taut body has started to go slack from inactivity. On the eve of last year's Gulf War, he dreamed of someday making general. Now Ralph Hayles, 42, doesn't even want his neighbors in the stately section of San Antonio to know he was in the military. And the military would just as soon forget about him. "The Army abandoned me," he says. "They sold me to the press to make themselves look good."

That is one soldier's opinion. What is clear is that when Desert Storm was unleashed against Saddam Hussein's army, Ralph Hayles seemed the model soldier fighting the model war. As a gung ho, no-nonsense lieutenant colonel commanding an elite helicopter unit in the Army's First Infantry Division, he made his men shine their boots every day, even in the war zone. Instead of glory, though, Ralph Hayles found nothing but disgrace and despair. Only two days before the outbreak of ground combat, Hayles was stripped of his command for his involvement in a "friendly-fire" incident that resulted in the death of two U.S. soldiers. All told, there were 35 deaths attributed to friendly fire during the Gulf War—but Hayles was the only soldier who was publicly singled out in connection with any of the incidents.

In the gulf, Hayles's command included 18 Apache helicopters—the Army's hot gunships, armed with 16 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and capable of flying at 200 m.p.h. From their base in the desert on the Saudi-Iraqi border, Hayles and his unit were responsible for the vital task of keeping a lookout for Iraqi scouts probing up and down the American lines. On the night of Feb. 16, with a sandstorm kicking up, Hayles received word that possible enemy vehicles had been sighted nearby. Given the poor weather and a recent spate of near misses involving friendly fire, Hayles decided to lead the helicopter patrol himself. As Norm Massry, then a captain in charge of operations for the unit, now recalls, Hayles was particularly concerned about the risk of hitting American forces by accident. "One of the things that will always stick in my mind," says Massry, "was Hayles's hesitancy to go on the mission because he was afraid of friendly-fire casualties." All the same, by leading the patrol personally, Hayles was ignoring a guideline issued by his commanding officer, Gen. Thomas Rhame, who wanted his line officers to stay out of direct combat so they might better supervise their units.

Zipping above the desert landscape just after midnight, Hayles and his pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Larry LeBlanc, hacked up by two other Apache gunships, arrived at the area where the suspected intruders had been reported. Using the Apache's infrared search system, Hayles scanned the desert floor for his prey. About three miles away, he detected two vehicles. It was then that he made his fatal error, confusing the images in his sights with the original location of the enemy intruders provided by the base.

From then on, the tragedy unfolded quickly. Relaying the misinformation to his ground base, code-named Iron Deuce Six, Hayles was advised by them to destroy the targets. But because he knew American forces were in the vicinity, and because there had been numerous close calls involving mistaken identity, he hesitated for two minutes. Impatient at the delay, Iron Deuce Six again told him, "Let's go ahead and shoot those. Take them out!" Still uncertain, Hayles decided to try his 30-mm cannon on the target, thinking that if the vehicles were friendly, they would at least have a chance to scatter and signal the base to cease fire. But the cannon jammed. On the radio Iron Deuce Six was insistent: "Go ahead and take 'em out!" Replied Hayles: "Boy, I'm going to tell you, it's hard to pull this trigger."

After asking for confirmation of the target's position, and receiving yet another order to fire, Hayles launched one of his Hellfires. Thirteen seconds later the missile slammed into the first vehicle, igniting a fireball. A moment later Hayles fired his second Hellfire, destroying the other vehicle. Almost immediately, ground commanders began radioing that it might have been Americans who were hit. On a tape of the communications, Hayles could be heard saying, "Roger, I was afraid of that. I was really afraid." As it turned out, Hayles had destroyed an armored personnel carrier and a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, killing Cpl. Jeffrey Middleton, 23, from Oxford, Kans., and Pvt. Robert D. Talley, 18, from Newark, N.J., the youngest American soldier killed in Desert Storm. Six other troops were wounded.

When he returned to base, Hayles was so overcome with grief that he sat alone, sobbing in his chopper for 30 minutes after he touched down. General Rhame ordered an immediate investigation. Hayles took full blame for the incident. Still, he hoped and assumed that he would be able to keep his command. The investigating general recommended that Hayles be given a "reprimand." But when Hayles appeared before General Rhame three days after the incident, the general, according to Hayles, was unsympathetic. The next day, Hayles was stripped of his command.

The official reason for his dismissal was his violation of the guideline against flying in combat, but Hayles and his colleagues assumed the real reason was the deaths of the two soldiers. In any case, Hayles was devastated. Ever since he had been a stellar ROTC cadet at Trinity University in Texas, right through his appointment to the Army War College—a grooming school for future generals—Hayles had loved the military and thrived in it. Now he was an outcast, though his fellow officers did not abandon him. Most seemed to agree that he had been made a scapegoat. "I don't think the punishment fits the crime in this ease," says Massry. "He was not given a fair hearing by the Army." Hayles believes several factors led to his dismissal. He was aware that political leaders in Washington were concerned about highly publicized friendly-fire incidents, especially alter a total of 11 marines had been killed in January in two separate accidents. And he surmised that his punishment was designed to set an example. (The Pentagon contends that Hayles's name became public, which is unusual in such cases, when pool reporters in the area learned of the accident and simply asked for confirmation.) As Hayles freely admits, his abrasive personality, which included a certain arrogance even with superior officers, didn't help either. "I was difficult in some ways, I know," he says. "I sure could have rubbed people the wrong way."

From the military base at Ad Damman, Saudi Arabia, where he waited for a flight back to the States, Hayles finally had a chance to call his wife back at Fort Riley, Kans. She had already been told about the friendly-fire incident by local military officials. From then on she found herself frozen out by some of the other battalion wives. Once back, his own anguish remained. "It was so hard on Ralph," says his mother, Marion, 66, who lives in Corpus Christi, Tex. "He didn't want to let anyone know, but we could see it."

In fact, over a month he dropped from 205 lbs. to 185. In the States he was offered a choice of low-level administrative posts. Mercifully his two sons—Clay, 6, and Trace, 3—were too young to grasp what was happening to their father. But his wife, Diana, 39, became concerned that he might try to take his own life. "We talked sporadically," she says. "There were some long silences. He'd get out of bed late at night and sit, wander around, watch TV or whatever. I couldn't help but worry about him doing something to himself."

Hayles insists that he never contemplated suicide. He did receive some consolation last November when the Army allowed him to retire as a lieutenant colonel (technically his retirement rank should have been one below the highest held on active service), which entitles him to a pension of $2,100 a month. In recent months he has started to rally. As a means of therapy, not to mention a way of earning a living, Hayles is working with an engineer to develop a small battlefield device that soldiers could carry so that planes and tanks, for instance, could recognize them as friendly. "It would be nice if some good came from all this," he says. Meanwhile, Hayles wants Washington to look into the circumstances surrounding his accident. A Congressional investigation into his case is nearing completion.

Hayles says he is still haunted, most of all, by the memory of the two young men he killed. Robert Talley's mother, Deborah, who works in the kitchen of a New Jersey nursing home, at first expressed so much anger at Hayles in interviews that he decided not to contact her, for fear of causing even more distress. But her attitude seems now to have softened. "I can't go around holding a grudge," she says. "I forgive him. I really do,"

Conversely, Joyce and Bill Middleton, who run a farm near Wichita, responded with considerable understanding when Hayles approached them last summer to apologize for the death of their son, Jeffrey. But after seeing a videotape of the incident released by the Army, which was shot from the nose of Hayles's Apache, the Middletons have turned bitter. "He was just out for a kill.," said Joyce. "The more I hear the tapes, the more I believe that." Hayles is distressed by their reaction but forces himself to be philosophical. "It was a bad mission and a bad night and a bad accident," he says. "But I'm confident in how I conducted myself."

KENT DEMARET in San Antonio

  • Contributors:
  • Kent Demaret.