YEAR IN REVIEW
Air Force colonel’s case was catalyst for military review
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was a “superstar,” according to his last, typically glowing officer evaluation report, and he’d been selected for promotion. Soon to be a colonel, he was expecting a group command.
Just a few months later, the F-16 pilot and 31st Fighter Wing inspector general at Aviano Air Base, Italy, was something quite different. He was “the accused” in a case of aggravated sexual assault.
Wilkerson, then 44, had allegedly groped a sleeping houseguest, a 49-year-old physician assistant he’d met only hours earlier and who’d arrived at his house for an impromptu party in March 2012 as part of a group driven there by the then-vice-wing commander.
Eight months later, Wilkerson was no longer an Air Force officer; he was an inmate at a South Carolina brig and a convicted sex offender, found guilty by a jury of Air Force colonels.
The turn of events was not yet complete. In a stunning reversal, in February 2013, he was returned to duty. Third Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, under powers granted by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, dismissed Wilkerson’s jury verdict and sentence and reinstated him.
Franklin’s action became national news and sparked a controversy between those who said it showed persistent bias against victims at the highest command levels and those who said it showed integrity in the face of political correctness and the overzealous prosecution of sexual assault.
It also caused Congressional outrage and prompted significant legislative changes to the military’s handling of sexual assault cases nearly a decade after Congress first forced the services to pay attention to the issue .
Franklin, in a memo he wrote detailing the reasons he’d overturned the jury’s guilty verdict and sentence, said he didn’t believe the accuser’s account.
He wrote that it didn’t make sense that an apparent family man soon to be promoted, with 91 letters of support, would do such a thing in his own home with his wife and child nearby.
He discounted Wilkerson’s polygraph that had found his answers deceptive. He found plausible explanations for inconsistencies in the accounts from Wilkerson and his wife, yet found the accuser’s inconsistencies troubling. And he faulted the woman for staying overnight at the Wilkerson home instead of having a friend pick her up.
The memo further enraged lawmakers. The Senate Armed Services Committee soon held a hearing calling all the services’ leaders to account, then pressed ahead on legislation to strip commanders of some or all of their discretion in sexual assault cases.
Other proposed legislation would mandate a dishonorable discharge for servicemembers convicted of sexual assault, outside counsel for victims, and a variety of other measures.
In the meantime, new wrinkles kept the case newsworthy throughout the year.
In April, shortly after Wilkerson was assigned to Davis-Monthan Air Base in Tucson, Ariz., it came to light that he’d fathered a child with a woman with whom he’d had a brief extramarital affair years earlier. The woman, saying she was disgusted by Franklin’s dismissal of the sexual assault case, contacted Stars and Stripes and the Air Force. An Air Force investigation substantiated the affair two months later and noted Wilkerson’s use of an F-16 in facilitating it on a TDY.
Two months ago, the Air Force initiated proceedings to force Wilkerson either to retire or to show why he should be retained in the service. Wilkerson chose to retire. The Air Force, then determined Wilkerson had last served satisfactorily as a major, reducing his retirement pay.
Wilkerson, who had chosen not to testify at his court-martial last year but who had before his sentencing promised to retire immediately if the jury did not strip him of benefits, said he disagreed with the decision to demote him.
He and his family, he said in a written statement to the Air Force Times, had been the victims of a “political crusade.”