Was punishment appropriate or excessive for a high-ranking officer who was called on the carpet?
In the fall of 2009, Maj. Tad Hervas was a 17-year military veteran on his third combat deployment, an intelligence officer with top secret security clearance who was in almost daily contact with the CIA.
And his Army career was effectively over.
Hervas, 48, from Coon Rapids, was being forced out of the Army because the National Guard had determined that he'd had an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.
On Oct. 6, Hervas was scheduled to fly to Baghdad to begin his legal defense. The day before, he prepared four notes, hiding one of them in his roommate's pillowcase. That morning, Hervas found an isolated room, unholstered his 9-millimeter service pistol and shot himself in the head.
"This was a cold and calculated act. I spoke to nor hinted of this to anyone," Hervas wrote in the letters marked for his commanders. "Do not blame anyone for my death."
Hervas became the highest-ranking member of the Minnesota National Guard -- and one of the most senior officers in the entire Army -- to take his own life.
His death rocked the Guard and brought the specter of suicide into its highest echelons. More than a year and a half later, the Guard remains reluctant to divulge information, even to his family, about how such a senior officer came to die by his own hand.
The letters he left behind, though, spelled out Hervas' despair, and his anger.
"I've lost my military career, retirement pay, the girl and any chance of having my own family," he wrote in the note for his parents.
The letter Hervas left his roommate asked that he visit his parents in Minnesota.
"It said, 'You tell them what they [the Guard] did,'" said Barbara Hervas, his mother.
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Hervas spent eight years in the Air Force and took part in the first Iraq war before joining the Guard.
Described as "easy going, always pleasant and well liked," Hervas was in charge of analyzing and producing intelligence reports. By all accounts, he did it well. Hervas "possesses unlimited potential and versatility, promote at the first opportunity," said his last written evaluation, completed four months before his death.
Prior to the deployment, Hervas had become acquainted with Ona Smart, a 23-year-old Guard specialist from Bloomington. The relationship wasn't prohibited, an example of the blurry lines in the Guard and Reserve, whose members straddle civilian and military life. But both knew the relationship would have to change during a deployment.
"I was very concerned that a relationship between us could hurt his military career, which meant the world to him," Smart said later.
Hervas later told investigators that keeping the relationship within Army boundaries was difficult. Sexual relationships are prohibited during the Guard's deployment, but liaisons were not uncommon, according to several soldiers who served in Iraq.
"Everyone was doing the same thing," said Chad Fleming, a friend of Hervas' who was with him in Iraq.
Soldiers who deployed with him say Hervas made his commanders and chaplain aware of the relationship as early as March 2009.
Just over four months later, Hervas would be dead.
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The day before he killed himself, Hervas was given a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand, delivered on behalf of the division commander, then-Maj. Gen. Rick Nash.
The severity of the discipline apparently was a surprise. Hervas had just completed a two-week visit to Minnesota. "None of us picked up on one thing that ... he was even thinking of something like this,'' Barbara Hervas said.
Brig. Gen. Gerald Lang, who delivered the reprimand, said later in a sworn statement that Hervas seemed to take it well.
"He was smiling the entire time, as I've known him to do," Lang, now second in command of the Minnesota Guard, told investigators.
Smart told investigators they'd broken up about a month before the suicide, and Hervas had hoped to get back together later.
Hervas, she added, "did all the right things and made sure that all the precautions were made concerning our relationship.''
Commanders "slowly but surely made life miserable for both myself and Major Hervas," she added.
Asked by the Star Tribune whether the relationship was sexual, Smart said through her attorney: "There could be no witnesses to romantic activity between us."
Without naming them, the Army's internal report cited "numerous witnesses to the close personal contact between the two, and several personnel who stated (Specialist Smart) informed them the relationship was of a sexual nature."
While Smart described Hervas to investigators as a "wonderful, considerate person," the Army concluded he pursued her in "nearly predatory fashion" and ignored a warning in May that his career was in danger.
Nash's reprimand, signed three days before Hervas killed himself, told him that he'd "disgraced yourself, your unit, and the United States Army."
Paul Guelle, a childhood friend of Hervas with more than 20 years in the Army, said he believes Hervas' command "created circumstances that led Tad to make a terrible decision." The Army likewise concluded that Hervas acted out of anguish.
In the note he left his commanders, Hervas requested that any charges against Smart be dropped. "This will be hard enough on her," he wrote.
Smart was not disciplined.
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"From a purely legal perspective, the final investigation of the circumstances of Maj. Tad Hervas' death recommended that no one person is accountable," said Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, the Guard spokesman.
Nash, who signed off on Hervas' discipline, now heads the Minnesota National Guard, where he is faced with stemming the disproportionate number of suicides within its ranks.
Barbara Hervas made seven teddy bears from parts of her son's uniforms.
She kept one and gave the others to family. Ned Hervas died last year at 70. His ashes rest atop a chest in the Hervas house that holds Tad's clothing and medals.
"My husband died of a broken heart," Barb Hervas said. "The Army has taken two of my men. They disgraced Tad."
On June 3, 2010, the Army closed its books on Tad Hervas.
It was the day of his father's funeral.
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434