'He Didn't Commit Suicide.'

He was a fighter jock, a decorated veteran of 221 combat missions over Vietnam and third in command at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, Calif. But on Jan. 22, 1991, Col. James Sabow, 51, was found shot dead in the backyard of his home, the victim of a blast to the head from his own shotgun. Sabow had been watching television coverage of the Persian Gulf War when his wife, Sally, left the house at 8:30 a.m. As she walked out the door she heard him answer the phone and repeat his name as though there were no response. When she returned an hour later, he was dead. The U.S. Marine Corps and the Naval Investigative Service concluded Sabow had committed suicide. His brother, Dr. John David Sabow, says the colonel was murdered because "he knew too much" about illegal covert operations at the base.

The body of marine Second Lt. Kirk Vanderbur was found at a private shooting range in Hubert, N.C., in February 1992. He had been shot twice -- once in the abdomen by a shotgun loaded with birdshot, then in the head with a .223-caliber Ruger rifle. Despite the fact that the guns lay eight to 10 feet apart, the Naval Investigative Service concluded Vanderbur had committed suicide -- which meant he must have crawled over to the Ruger rifle while badly wounded in a second attempt to take his own life. Vanderbur's mother, Lois, says there was no sign her son was despondent and that he sent a cheery letter to his younger brother -- "little squirrelly bro" -- the day before his death. "We don't know what happened, but we know he didn't commit suicide," she says.

These cases and dozens of others raise troubling questions about life -- and death -- in the military. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, which printed a lengthy series on the controversy last year, 3,375 members of the U.S. armed services were listed as suicides between 1979 and 1993 -- and of those, grieving relatives have challenged the military's official findings in more than 60 cases. The families charge that military investigators have often lost or mishandled crucial evidence or failed to perform autopsies and laboratory tests. In some cases, they contend, investigators have attempted to cover up scandals or criminal conspiracies in the ranks. The relatives have formed a national organization called Until We Have Answers to protest what they see as the Pentagon's slipshod handling of suicide cases, and some have gone to extraordinary lengths to dispute the military's claims. The parents of marine Cpl. John MacCaskill Jr., an embassy guard found shot in a bar in El Salvador in 1988, have had his body exhumed twice in an attempt to prove he was murdered. "These families are not off the wall," says Frederick McDaniel, a former army lieutenant colonel who once commanded a criminal-investigations unit. "They've been treated very shabbily. The bottom line is, nobody gives a damn."

Sabow's immediate family filed suit against the navy and the Marine Corps, seeking damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress and conspiracy to cover up his murder. The Sabows contend navy investigators ignored physical evidence that proves murder, including the fact that Sabow's fingerprints were not found on the shotgun or on the two shells in its firing chamber. Gene Wheaton, a former military investigator retained by the Sabow family, says the navy's criminal-investigation service is notably less competent than those of the other armed services. "They don't think like cops -- they think like bureaucrats," he says. "They want to go in and close the whole thing out." Wheaton also claims the marine brass is concealing a pattern of covert arms smuggling that is "a continuation of Iran-contra" -- and he implies that Sabow must have known something illegal was going on.

But Sabow may well have had a motive for suicide. According to his brother, the colonel was removed from his post as assistant chief of staff at El Toro about five days before his death and was under investigation for the unauthorized use of marine aircraft. The purpose, reportedly, was golf junkets, not international arms smuggling. (The Marine Corps refused to comment on all aspects of the Sabow case.) J. D. Sabow says these charges were "phony and trumped up" and insists his brother "was going to blow everything out at a court-martial." Even so, Sabow faced the likelihood of an inglorious finale to a distinguished military career -- and his brother, who alleges that marine officials conspired to wreck his own career as a neurologist, is clearly bent on avenging a family tragedy.

There may be a plausible explanation for Kirk Vanderbur's apparent suicide as well. David Grimes, a private investigator hired by the family, believes Vanderbur accidentally discharged the shotgun, opening a gaping wound in his stomach -- and then, in excruciating pain, struggled to the Ruger rifle to kill himself. Why? As Grimes explains it, Vanderbur knew that he was slowly bleeding to death and that there was no one around to help him; the shooting range had closed for the weekend. "I can see putting an end to it," Grimes says. But, he says, Lois Vanderbur "didn't like the fact that I didn't find it was murder."

Under pressure from the families and from Congress, Pentagon officials are reviewing about a dozen suicide cases that still seem questionable. But the public's skepticism about the integrity and competence of military officialdom probably means that such investigations will always be emotional minefields -- and a source of anguished controversy for years to come.