Earlier this year, the story of four Air Force pilots who received controversial
letters of reprimand for unbecoming texts sent to one another made headlines.
Now, as the future careers of the pilots still remains uncertain,
Air Force Times took a close look at the case against the pilots and spoke to legal experts
about Air Force's questionable actions against them.
During an unrelated investigation, the text messages of four instructional
Air Force pilots were found to contain drug references and the pilots
were promptly served letters of reprimand. One of the pilots was able
to successfully assert in an Article 15 hearing what many now believe
to be true: that the pilots never did any drugs and all drug references
contained in the texts were simply references to popular songs and movies
between friends. All four pilots later passed drug tests, as well.
Earlier this month, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh met with Rep. Duncan
Hunter and Rep. Adam Kinzinger—both former servicemen—about
their concerns about the case. As Joe Kasper, a spokesmen for Hunter,
told the press: "The texts were a mix of banter, music and pop culture
references. Quite often, as I do myself and many others do too, there
were euphemisms and metaphors within the conversations. Having seen the
full extent of the messages from everyone involved, I can attest to this."
The texts have not been released to the public.
Questionable Seizures & Standards
Air Force Times explores, one of the more contentious elements of the case against the
pilots is the manner in which the Air Force Office of Special Investigations
(OIS) obtained the texts in the first place. According to accounts and
records, OIS seized the pilots' phones by asserting that they had
warrants-- but the warrants for the phones on record were signed a day
after the phones were taken.
“If you hand them your phone, they can’t look at it, they can
just hold it until they get a warrant to search it—or an authorization
to search it. If they didn’t have authorization to search it, then
search was illegal," Guy Womack, a former Marine Corps judge advocate told
Air Force Times. "It’s not consensual if you tell someone, ‘Hey, I’ve
got a warrant, you might as well give it to me.' That’s not
valid because you didn’t know that you could refuse consent. It’s
only consensual if you believe you can refuse and you give that up and
you say, 'OK, go ahead and take it.'"
Additionally, some question where the line between acceptable military
behavior and inappropriate behavior actually lies. The letters of reprimand
cite "inappropriate" behavior-- but was the pilots' behavior
actually inappropriate? Court-martial lawyer Michael Waddington shared
his trepidation about these kinds of broad and vague accusations.
“I think in his letter, they phrased it as, ‘inappropriate.’
It was basically a generic catch-all like under ‘conduct unbecoming’—‘inappropriate
behavior,’ ‘inappropriate conduct’—but there’s
really nothing inappropriate about it," he said, adding that neither
the Defense Department nor the UCMJ has an official definition of what
constitutes unprofessional behavior. "There’s no such thing;
otherwise, you could be just making up charges," Waddington added,
"Somebody could get drunk in his backyard and play rap music and
that would be considered unprofessional by some standards."
An Uncertain Future for the Pilots
Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh is said to be reviewing the pilots'
case now and told the intervening lawmakers that they will have some kind
new appraisal of the situation sometime in November. In the meantime,
the pilots have little recourse but to accept their letters of reprimand
and whatever tasks they are given outside of an aircraft cockpit—a
fact that some consider a waste.
Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly told
Air Force Times this year that it costs $9 million to train a single pilot, meaning that
the Air Force has already made a considerable investment in each of the
accused pilots in this case. "Unless they get the wings back—which
hopefully they do—they’re going to be sitting around handing
out basketballs at a gym or doing something like that," Waddington
Air Force Times. "After all those years of training and all that hard work, I’d
rather have those guys out there on the front lines doing their jobs."
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He calls upon more than a decade of experience in the U.S. Army to advocate
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members are properly defended against whatever allegations they might face.
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