chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
April 01, 2013

Legal Lore: Anatomy of an Attempted Army Murder

Fred L. Borch

Download a printable PDF of this article (membership required).

On November 30, 1972, Staff Sergeant Alan G. Cornett was living in a small outpost near Duc My, Vietnam. A medic assigned to an American Special Forces team, Cornett liked being where the action was, and he had almost completed an unprecedented six and a half years in Vietnam. But on that November day, Alan Cornett was not a happy trooper. After drinking a half case of Budweiser beer and a pint of rum, Cornett walked to the bunker where his superior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Donald F. Bongers, was on duty. Cornett then took an M-26 fragmentation grenade off his web belt, pulled the pin, and threw the grenade into the bunker.

As he later explained to an Army criminal investigator, he “fragged” Bongers because “he was an asshole who deserved to die.” For attempting to murder Bongers with a fragmentation grenade (hence the word “fragging”), Cornett was court-martialed in January 1973. What follows is the story of this trial and its surprising ending.

When the trial proceedings began on January 12, 1973, the prosecutor could not have been more pleased with what seemed to be an open-and-shut case. Faced with the evidence against him, including the testimony of Colonel Bongers, who had luckily escaped injury in the attack, Sergeant Cornett had agreed to plead guilty to attempted murder. In return for this plea of guilty, the prosecution had agreed that, regardless of the sentence a jury might impose, Cornett’s sentence would be capped at 30 years of imprisonment and a dishonorable discharge. Under military criminal law, a soldier being tried by court-martial is permitted to plead guilty before a judge and then elect to have his or her sentence decided by a military jury. Cornett had made this choice—no doubt hoping that he could get a lighter sentence from a jury of his fellow soldiers than he could get from a military judge sitting alone.

As a result of Cornett’s plea of guilty, the sole responsibility for the military jury of seven officers was to determine an appropriate sentence. As the hearing unfolded, witness after witness testified that Cornett was a “super soldier” who not only was a valuable asset in combat but had been decorated for gallantry under fire with both the Silver Star and the Bronze Star medals. The evidence of Cornett’s good military character was overwhelming, and more than a few witnesses testified that Colonel Bongers was a poor leader and had repeatedly mistreated Cornett. It seems that Alan Cornett had fallen in love with and married a Vietnamese woman. Bongers made it clear to Cornett—in remarks other soldiers at the outpost overheard—that he did not like such “mixed” marriages and that American soldiers who associated with Vietnamese women were fraternizing with nothing more than prostitutes. Bongers’s prejudiced remarks were bad enough, but he also denied Cornett’s request to bring his wife into their outpost at Duc My. It seems that this forced separation was the catalyst for Cornett’s attempt to kill Bongers.

Having been informed by the military judge that Cornett could lawfully be sentenced to a dishonorable discharge and confinement in prison for life, the jury retired behind closed doors to deliberate. When they returned, both the prosecutor and defense counsel, if not the judge as well, must have been stunned to hear the jury’s sentence: imprisonment for one year. It was clear that the jury was loath to kick Cornett out of the Army with a dishonorable discharge, probably because of his six years in Vietnam. On the other hand, the jury realized that a sergeant who tried to kill his superior officer must be punished and that some jail time was appropriate.

Cornett indeed did go to jail—at Fort Riley, Kansas—and his rank was reduced from that of sergeant to private. But because his sentence was one year, Cornett was offered the chance for rehabilitation. He could elect to leave the Army with an honorable discharge, or he could continue to soldier. Cornett chose the latter; he liked the Army and he wanted to stay. It was a good decision: Within a few years, Alan Cornett had regained all the rank he had lost at his court-martial. Moreover, he performed so well that he was promoted to an even higher enlisted rank, first sergeant, and was able to retire with a full pension from the Army after more than 20 years of active duty. This aftermath to an attempted murder—a full retirement—certainly would have surprised the jury that imposed the sentence to imprison Cornett; they no doubt believed that he would do a short time in jail and then be discharged from the Army.

So ends the true story of the sergeant who fragged his superior officer in Vietnam and its surprising aftermath. As for Alan Cornett, he wrote an “uncensored, unvarnished tale” of his years as a soldier, Gone Native: An NCO’s Story, published by Ballantine Books in 2000.


Fred L. Borch

The author is the regimental historian and archivist for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, U.S. Army.