TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Some Army (search) reservists say they were disrespected by a sheriff's deputy who made racially derogatory remarks during a confrontation in a national forest.
The incident in the Apalachicola National Forest about 20 miles southwest of Tallahassee last week ended with three of the 12 soldiers getting $50 tickets.
The soldiers, most of whom are black and all but one of whom was in uniform, immediately filed a complaint with the Leon County Sheriff's Office. An internal review by the department a few days later cleared the deputy sheriff, one of two law enforcement officers involved.
A sheriff's official said Tuesday that it was the soldiers who acted rudely and inappropriately, not the law enforcement officers.
The other law officer is with the U.S. Forest Service. That federal agency is still conducting its review, according to spokeswoman Denise Rains.
"We've been looking very methodically into what happened," Rains said Tuesday.
Rains said the federal officer was not commenting on the case; the deputy sheriff did not return a phone call.
At a Tuesday press conference attended by the soldiers, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called the sheriff's review "incomplete and unacceptable."
Dale Landry of the NAACP, a retired Army sergeant first class, said he was troubled by the treatment of soldiers who have been in Iraq and those who are facing deployment.
"They're getting ready to deploy," Landry said. "Some may not come home. All they wanted to do was have a party for their families before they departed."
The soldiers, with the 351st Adjutant General Postal Company, said they were sent to Silver Lake Recreational Area to decide on a location for a family day picnic next month. They were in two military vehicles and one private truck.
The interaction between the soldiers, the sheriff's deputy and the Forest Service officer began when the soldiers drove by a drop box for a $3 entrance fee to the area.
The soldiers said Tuesday they didn't realize there was an entrance fee. But they also say that they were on official military business and were therefore exempt from the fee.
The soldiers who got the tickets were the ones driving the vehicles.
Staff Sgt. Michael Russ said it was clear from the beginning that the confrontation would be unpleasant.
"It's not about the tickets, it's about the total disrespect of a human being," Russ said. "It's not about it being disrespected for a soldier, it's about it being disrespect for a person."
Russ said the deputy asked him if he could read on a ninth-grade level. Another comment that the soldiers and the two civil rights groups said had racial overtones compared the soldiers' actions to behavior of people "from the projects."
"I'm 37 years old," Russ said. "I have never experienced anything like that in my life."
Sheriff's Maj. John Schmidt said the soldiers "blew" through a stop sign as they entered the recreation area and "immediately became argumentative, combative and rude" when the Forest Service officer stopped them.
The deputy's comments might seem inappropriate "on their face" but, taken in context, they did not rise to the level of misconduct, Schmidt said.
"There was absolutely nothing racial about the comments," Schmidt said.