The bang came at 1:45 a.m., the kind that jerks you from sleep but maybe was just your imagination.
Bang! Bang! “Security…open up.” Okay, not my imagination.
Judging by the volume, the cops stood down the hall about two doors, hammering with something like the butt of a stout flashlight.
Bang! Bang! Bang! “Security police…open up!”
My fellow dorm rats were either passed out or had moved the Friday night festivities to an off-base club. The music and drinkfest in the adjacent wing had died early, around midnight.
The cadence of jingling keys and military boots approached my end of the hall and stopped. Shadows erased the thin strip of light reflecting under the door. Bang! Bang! “Security police…open up.”
Two Air Force sergeants wearing black berets stared at my squinting eyes through the cracked-open door. Heightening their stance, they peeked into the dark room behind me. “Are you Airman Henning?”
“We were told that you’re a friend of Michael Wright. Is that correct?”
Puzzled, I opened the door farther. “Yeah, we’re friends.”
“Have you seen him tonight?”
“Yeah, I saw him earlier, in the other wing.”
“Had he been drinking?”
Crap. Did he get in a fight? Was he caught drinking and driving? Is he dead? “Uh, yeah, I saw him drinking a beer,” I replied.
“Is Airman Wright in your room?”
The quiet one aimed his flashlight into the room.
“No sir,” I answered.
They stared at me.
“Would you like to come check?” I motioned them inside.
“That won’t be necessary. Sorry to wake you.” The sergeants glanced at each other and turned.
“Can you tell me what’s going on?” I said.
“Someone will be in touch with you if we have more questions. Sorry again for waking you.”
On that fateful night in 1994, Air Force law enforcement had suspected Airman Michael Wright (whose name I have changed for this post) of raping a woman who lived in the adjacent hall of my military dorm at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
I met Michael during a “dorm visitation night” in 1993. A few of us guys and gals from the base chapel went knocking on doors of new arrivals, offering them information about the base, things to do in Colorado Springs, and an invitation to church.
Michael was a shoe-in. Already a Christ follower, he had been praying for a group of Christian 20-somethings to hang with. He was a normal, single guy, who loved life, talked about his family upbringing, and couldn’t wait to spend time in the mountains with his new friends.
A few of us guys got together weekly to pray for each other, study the Bible, talk about life, and just chill together. Michael was no stranger to praying in a group; he prayed openly with no hesitation and was genuinely interested in every person he met.
Michael was like most other single Christian guys in their 20’s. He was interested in the ladies, and wanted to honor them and his faith by remaining sexually pure. He desired to be a father some day. He was a hard worker and respected others. He strove to be a spiritual leader in our small group community, and he was not ashamed to admit his struggles.
He talked about his past relationships with women, how most were very physical. He shared his struggle with pornography, and his occasional drinking binges, but never a hint of criminal intentions. I’d been around enough down-to-earth Christian guys to realize these issues were nothing new, even for successful church folk. Michael’s story sounded no different.
“Raise your right hand and repeat after me.”
Seated in the witness stand, I raised my hand and swore the oath to tell the truth.
“Airman Henning, can you identify Airman Michael Wright in this room?” the Judge said.
“Yes sir,” I replied.
“Airman Henning, would you please point to Airman Wright.”
I caught Michael’s eye just before he stared back at the table. Seeing him there, seated next to that lawyer, in front of a room full of people, and on trial for rape with a pending sentence at the roughest military prison in the United States…I couldn’t help but think “What in the hell happened, Michael?” I’d never get the chance to ask.
Because I was one of Michael’s trusted friends, I was also privy to his problems. That labeled me as a neutral witness. When Michael’s lawyer questioned me, I mustered all of the best qualities that I could about Michael. For the prosecution, I swore to answer truthfully when asked “Had Michael ever shared his problems with women, or alcohol? Would you please share those details with the court?”
I couldn’t help but answer the questions like an emotionless robot. Michael had confided in me on several occasions, and there I sat, spilling a few beans that would help put him away. Although Michael had mentioned nothing more than enjoying consentual sex with women and occasional drinking, given the circumstances, those facts weighed in favor of the prosecution.
In the end, the only comfort I found was that my statements actually held little weight. The prosecution had all they needed with or without my witness. Michael was convicted of victimizing not one, but at least three girls, one of them a 14 year-old whom he coerced into sexual acts at a weekend church retreat. I felt sucker-punched and disgusted, but even more I wondered how I didn’t see it.
The last I ever saw of Michael was when I had pointed him out in court to the judge. That was 16 years ago. Strange how, after a brief testimony, a great friendship seemed as though it never existed. Who was that guy I pointed out, and who was that guy on the witness stand?
That entire season comes to me like an obscure dream; I have a hard time believing that it ever happened. And I’ve wondered if I could have done more to help Michael, but I’ve never felt tempted to blame myself. Perplexed, yes.
For two to three years following the trial, I tried to figure out why he did it. Another friend and I had wrote to Michael at the prison, but we never heard back. I finally realized that I didn’t have to know.
Would I embrace the opportunity to see Michael again? To ask him for an explanation? Definitely. But I’ve also learned how selfish I am to want that opportunity. For the victims and their families, I believe there is healing in knowing why. But for me, it would be completely self-serving of my own curiosity. I had to let it go.
Friends are called upon to make tough decisions, even decisions involving prison sentences. Have you ever had to make a gut-wrenching decision that risked a relationship with a friend? Or a family member?
Even if your story doesn’t seem as dramatic as a prison sentence, I’d love to hear about it.