FUTURE OF AIR FORCE PILOTS PUNISHED FOR TEXTS STILL UNCERTAIN
October 23, 2015
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
As 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 also told 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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