Air Force ‘old boy’ pilot network?

Talk about bad timing. Late last week, when we honored International Women’s Day, across the wires came the story of an Air Force general quietly nullifying a Lieutenant Colonel’s recent court-martial conviction and prison sentence for aggravated sexual assault.

Members of Congress, headed by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), angrily protested, demanding answers from senior Air Force officials as well as the newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

Sexual assault is no laughing matter. The military has long since supposed to have stopped being a “boys club.” An admiral this writer once served under often said, “appearance is reality.”

To its credit, the Air Force has convicted and punished other sex offenders with court-martial, most notably, enlisted men for disgraceful sexual misconduct in its training community. As a retired naval officer, I can tell you of many Navy commanding officers relieved for cause and punished for misconduct as well. Serious stuff. A general court-martial conviction is considered a felony conviction, following one for life. Both accuser and accused have a right to justice.

A quintessential part of jurisprudence for all Americans, uniformed or not, is the right to appeal. That said, civilian appellant courts do cite, in detail, why they overturned a case or sent it back for retrial. A general deciding he didn’t like the verdict falls well short of that standard. We deserved far better.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice has been in force since 1951, codifying older regulations. There are rules dictating the code be posted conspicuously. On submarines, where space is at a premium, it was usually posted on a large placard on the inside of a bathroom stall door, where nature would ensure it could be read at least a couple of times per day. Inevitably, some wag would always underline the “penetration, however slight, constitutes an offense” text for sexual offenses.

Again, sexual assault is no laughing matter. It also adversely affects good order, discipline and mission readiness. It’s just wrong.

Lt. Col. WilkersonLt. Col. James Wilkerson could possibly have gotten a faulty trial, and Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin may have been within his statutory authority to nullify the verdict, but it frankly stinks of fellow pilot “old boy” network collusion. Women in the military are here to stay, and the cancer of sexual misconduct is disgraceful. It has no place anywhere, particularly in the armed forces. It’s still a big problem in the military. With the military’s blemished record on ensuring fair and equal treatment, the Pentagon needs to be playing it cleaner and better than others. As our old math teachers said, “show your work.”

Col. Wilkerson may be coming back to active duty since his release from the brig late last month, and Gen. Franklin may keep his command, but there’s a near certainty that neither officer will ever be promoted again with such toxic waste on their records. They’ll likely quietly retire with full pension and benefits. Ask disgraced Army Lt. Col. and ex-Tea Party Rep. Allen “Loose Cannon” West (R-Fla.). West managed to evade a court-martial, and retired in a hurry to become a one-term Congressional fluke. Americans and their military members of both genders deserve full, complete, and accountable justice.

The Uniform Code of Military justice has served well for more than two-thirds of a century.  Most of it warrants keeping. There are parts which do need updating, in particular, restrictions on the ability of senior commanders to unilaterally negate convictions from a court-martial for serious and heinous offenses. It’s time to bring military post-trial procedures and remedies in line with the courts which serve us all.