A date had been set for a preliminary hearing in the court-martial of an ousted Scott Air Force Base commander.
Former commander Col. John Howard had reached the fifth highest rank a person can in the military with more than 20 years of service in the Air Force. He served at bases across the United States and in the United Kingdom, achieving six major awards and decorations. From 1994 to 2015, the Air Force promoted Howard six times from second lieutenant to colonel.
This biographical information wasn’t readily available on the Air Force website after Howard lost his job in December amid sexual assault and misconduct allegations. Months passed, and in June, the allegations became criminal charges.
Those charges later disappeared and the Air Force punished Howard for minor offenses. He was allowed to apply for retirement and received a formal reprimand and a dock in pay.
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In the military, the commander of the person who has been accused decides if a case will go to court-martial, or military trial. Even in severe cases, it’s not uncommon for the boss to decide against a court-martial, opting instead for discipline that wouldn’t leave a mark on a criminal record. The military refers to this type of civil discipline as non-judicial punishment.
“This is the Air Force’s 71st birthday and they’ve never court-martialed a general officer,” said retired Col. Don Christensen, a former top prosecutor for the Air Force and president of victim advocate organization Protect Our Defenders. “There have been plenty worthy, but the more senior you get the more people you know making these decisions.”
In fiscal year 2015, only 202 of the 1,312 total reported sexual assault cases in the Air Force went to court-martial, according to data from the Judicial Proceedings Panel and Air Force Public Affairs. That’s 15 percent, and includes cases that were dismissed and cases between spouses and intimate partners.
Of the 202 reported cases, 39 resulted in convictions, according to the panel.
In Howard’s case, his boss decided the charges were serious enough that they needed to proceed to a court-martial.
But as the July hearing date approached, the case began to unravel, according to a defense attorney for Howard. Attorneys discovered evidence that the sexual assault allegation was false, including “communications” from the victim to Howard suggesting as much, according to attorney Richard Stevens.
“The defense was prepared to present this evidence and the witnesses at the (preliminary) hearing, and we served notice of this,” Stevens wrote in a prepared statement. “After that, the complainant’s counsel submitted the letter indicating that the complainant did not wish to participate further in the case.”
When the victim withdrew from the case as a key witness, the basis court-martial became impossible, according to Capt. Ryan DeCamp, a spokesman for the 18th Air Force.
“At court-martial, an accused member has a constitutional right to confront their accusers in open court,” Ryan said. “This strict constitutional requirement cannot be overcome with sworn written statements or other evidence. Therefore, the victim would have had to testify in-person for the government to present testimonial evidence derived from the victim.”
It’s not exactly clear why the victim decided against testifying. Capt. Lauren Kerby, a Special Victims Counsel judge advocate, said in a prepared statement the victim considered Howard’s punishment justice.
In a follow-up email, Kerby said her client is “grateful for everyone who is concerned about her and interested in her perspective, but would like to move forward with her life and put this difficult time behind her.”
Kerby added her client felt she “received exemplary support” from the Air Force.
Howard’s punishment was probably “the best that could be done in a bad situation,” said Retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, director of Government Operations for the Service Women’s Action Network.
“When the witness doesn’t want to come forward and testify, this is the best you can do. He’s being held accountable for some of his actions,” Manning said. “He’s removed from command and he can’t do it again. That’s a success. He’s paying the price more in money than in jail time.”
As part of the pre-trial agreement, Howard submitted his application for retirement. Discipline also included a formal reprimand and forfeiture of $5,420 per monthly pay period for two months. He now works at Air Mobility Command’s Flight-Safety Division at Scott Air Force Base, DeCamp said.
It could take months to complete the retirement process, DeCamp said, as officials decide at what rank Howard should retire — and what his pension payments will be.
Reprimand, retire, repeat
Howard joins the ranks of military officials who have been forced to retire because of their inappropriate sexual behavior, and who avoided a court-martial and a criminal record.
“I think it’s a missed opportunity for the Air Force to send a message that senior offices will be held accountable,” said Christensen, the former Air Force prosecutor.
It’s common for badly behaving officers to receive a formal reprimand from their boss, see a temporary dock in pay and be forced to retire, usually at a lower rank. With a lower rank comes a reduced pension payment.
Howard’s punishment — the reprimand and a dock in pay — was not strong enough, Christensen said.
“This punishment is extremely light and inappropriate,” Christensen said. “Even if it was no longer a non-consensual sex case, it is still a serious crime and that’s where I think the military failed to be consistent with the Department of Defense holding senior officers holding accountable for improper relationships with subordinates.”
This type of discipline “is the next most serious way to address misconduct,” DeCamp said. Howard was ultimately punished for conduct unbecoming an officer and fraternization. The reprimand did not mention the original assault charges, which were dropped when the court-martial fell through.
Retired Maj. Gen. Arthur Lichte saw a similar fate after the former leader of Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base coerced a subordinate officer to have sex with him on three occasions. The subordinate officer was “in a position in which she could have believed that she had no choice but to engage in these sex acts given your far superior grade, position, and significant ability to affect her career,” according to the formal reprimand issued to Lichte.
Lichte said he would “deny it until the day he died,” according to a Belleville News-Democrat report from February 2017. Lichte was demoted two ranks from a four-star general to a major general, thereby losing $60,000 per year in pension payments. The military cut his annual payments from $216,000 to $156,000.
The case could have gone to court-martial, but the statute of limitations had expired.
Howard’s boss said in his reprimand Howard placed the “very junior airman” in “a terrible position of coercion based on your rank.” Former 18th Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Giovanni Tuck wrote the reprimand. Tuck was commander of the 18th Air Force when he decided to oust Howard and has since taken a post as director for logistics in Arlington, Virginia.
Similar cases have repeated themselves, though even non-judicial punishment was relatively rare in recent years.
In fiscal year 2014, the Air Force reported initiating 35 non-judicial punishment procedures for sexual contact offenses, with 31 of those cases ending in discipline, according to the Judicial Proceedings Panel. The “vast majority” of these cases involved the victim being touched through clothing and kissing without consent.
Regardless of how the military punishes abusers, advancements in how the military treats victims has improved in recent years, said Manning of the Service Women’s Action Network.
Victims feel more comfortable coming forward because there are now resources to help ensure their accusations don’t get swept under the rug, Manning said. The Special Victims Counsel judge advocate program, for example, is a relatively new development. The victim in the Howard case benefited from the advocate’s legal know-how, Manning said.
“She (the advocate) will have seen all the pieces of the puzzle,” Manning said. “We can see in this case she was represented by some legal counsel in court.”
Valuing talented prosecutors, thorough investigations and eliminating officer bias could also bring improvements to justice in sexual assault cases, Christensen said. That could be done through allowing uniformed prosecutors to make the decision about how a case should be tried.
“To get to be wing commander you have to have people who were bringing you up, connections,” Christensen said. “They know each other and they’re reluctant to hold each other accountable.”
Victims of sexual assault in the military can take the following measures:
- Report the abuse to the base, installation or command Sexual Assault & Response Coordinator, or SARC;
- Call the Department of Defense Safe Helpline for one-on-one help by visiting www. Safehelpline.org or by calling 1-877-995-5247.