Air Force takes action against Kadena officer married to enlisted wife
KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “All mankind love a lover.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson never was in the U.S. Air Force.
Ten days before Valentine’s Day, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Remington, 18th Wing commander, notified an Air Force captain he’s being brought up on charges of fraternizing with an enlisted woman — the captain’s wife.
It’s a tale of love found and lost — and found again — by two people who say they desperately wanted to do the right thing in a culture that makes fraternization between ranks illegal but allows officer-enlisted marriages.
Capt. Ledell Joiner, 31, of the Kadena Air Base Judge Advocate’s office, faced a Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 15 charge Thursday for disobeying an order, which could entail punishment but is considered nonjudicial.
Joiner’s hearing came on Valentine’s Day eve, the same day that USS Kitty Hawk Battle Group commander Rear Adm. Steven Kunkle also received an Article 15 amid charges of an improper relationship with a female officer. Kunkle was relieved of command Thursday.
The cases are far from identical. Kunkle’s involves an accusation of an improper relationship between two officers, for instance, not fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel. But they focus attention on the military’s rules about which personal relationships are permitted — and the sometimes stringent penalties for ignoring those rules.
Joiner, 31, is married to Staff Sgt. Evelyn Sosatoledo, 28, also of Kadena Air Base. He’s charged with violating an Air Force regulation barring officers from fraternizing with enlisted members. There’s a loophole: The relationship is permitted if the couple is married.
And there’s a loophole to the loophole: Getting married does not prevent an officer’s command from taking action against any dating or sexual relationship that took place prior to the marriage.
As a lawyer, Joiner knew the rules. He said he knew he couldn’t let the love of his life slip away again.
The two first met four years ago in Salt Lake City. He was in college; she was in the Air Force.
“We got along pretty well but she was engaged and, well, it wasn’t the right time,” Joiner said. He graduated from college, earned a law degree and was assigned to Kadena. He’d been on the base about 18 months when he ran into Sosatoledo at the housing office, where she’s assigned.
“It was like, ‘Wow, this is strange,’” Joiner said. “We talked for a minute” — and he learned she had never married and was no longer engaged.
“It was serendipity,” he said. “We both felt the spark was still there.”
But he also knew dating between ranks is forbidden. “I knew right then that the only way we could be together was to get married,” he said.
The couple were wed at the Okinawa City Office on Nov. 29.
“Love is a kind of warfare.”
“I reported the marriage the next work day to my boss,” Joiner said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Congratulations,’ but the look on his face told me, ‘This is not good.’”
Joiner said that he had been called on the carpet more than once for being too friendly with legal office enlisted personnel. But marrying was a step too far.
Col. John A. Dyer, Staff Judge Advocate for the 18 Wing, told the investigating officer, Maj. William K. Uptmor, he had talked with Joiner when he first reported to work in April 2001 about the “need to set an example as a member of the JAG community.”
“Capt. Joiner,” Uptmor reported, “had established very friendly and relaxed relationships with some of the NCOs in the work area and Col. Dryer cautioned Capt. Joiner on appearances.” In May 2002, Dyer again warned Joiner.
After announcing his nuptials, Joiner said, he immediately was relieved of his duties as claims officer. An investigation began.
The couple’s e-mail was examined; friends, co-workers and several of Joiner’s neighbors were interviewed.
Joiner was handed a copy of the investigator’s report when informed of the pending Article 15. Two neighbors told investigators they saw Sosatoledo’s car parked at his off-base apartment several times late at night, early in the morning and on a weekend, the report stated.
“That’s the strongest evidence against me, and the answer is simple,” Joiner said. “My car had broken down, and I had borrowed hers.”
All co-workers and friends interviewed said they had no direct knowledge the couple had dated. They had been seen together, but other people always were present.
“All of our encounters were around other people,” Joiner said.
E-mail evidence, the investigator’s report states, consists of Nov. 7 messages about a “lunch date” and a romantic poem Joiner sent her on Oct. 23.
One of Joiner’s co-workers said he told her he dined once with Sosatoledo before they married. Joiner said that was lunch at a Mexican restaurant: “It was the time we decided that if we wanted to be together, we had to get married.
“It’s crazy,” he said, shaking his head. “Our rationale for getting married was that we wanted to do the right thing. … We wanted to stay within the rules of the military.”
“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
— William Shakespeare
Remington gave Joiner until Thursday to decide whether to accept the Article 15 and whatever punishment Remington proscribes, or ask for a hearing to present his side of the case. If he had declined the Article 15, the command could have dropped the matter or sought a court-martial.
“Since it involves a JAG officer, I’m pretty sure they’d go for the court-martial,” Joiner said. “We’re the people who recommend action against people who fraternize. It wouldn’t look good to drop a case involving a JAG officer.”
So on Thursday he reported to Remington and accepted the Article 15. He asked for a public hearing.
“I was told that was the public hearing,” Joiner said. “So I told him my side of the story. He didn’t ask me any questions. The whole thing lasted about four minutes.”
He was told he would be informed at a later date of Remington’s decision.
If it was merely fraternization, Joiner said, standard practice is to give the senior-ranked person in the relationship a “no contact” order. The Joiners are married; that’s not an option.
In an Article 15 hearing, Remington could impose nonjudicial punishment up to an official reprimand, forfeiture of a half-month’s pay for each for two months and 30 days’ house arrest, said Col. Steven J. Lepper, staff judge advocate, 5th Air Force. Joiner also could be placed on restriction for 60 days.
“It would keep me from making major,” he said.
Worst-case scenario: If found guilty at court-martial, he could have faced a dishonorable discharge and up to two years in prison.
“I don’t want to see him go to jail, no way,” said Joiner’s wife, 28, who faces no legal action. “Why should he be punished for something he didn’t do?”
She is adamant they did not date the month before marrying.
“It was weird, for sure,” she said, her speech reflecting her Costa Rican childhood. “I really wanted to see him again. When we met in Utah, I said to myself, ‘Wow, he’s so great. Too bad I’m engaged.’
“And now I wasn’t and there he was — but he was an officer. I wanted to get together,” she said, “but it was like we couldn’t even be friends.”
It took him several phone conversations to convince her they could be together only by marrying, she said.
“I just love this man to death,” she said. “I could never let this man go. That’s what I think. He’s just a wonderful guy. I’m a lifer.”
“If you would marry suitably, marry your equal.”
The regulations are clear, Lepper said. Air Force Instruction 36-2909 spells it out:
“Fraternization, as defined by the Manual for Courts-martial, is a personal relationship between an officer and an enlisted member that violates the customary bounds of acceptable behavior in the Air Force and prejudices good order and discipline, discredits the armed services or operates to the personal disgrace or dishonor of the officer involved.”
“He knew the rules,” Lepper said. “His command determined this action was appropriate.”
Joiner said there is no proof his relationship had any adverse impact on the Air Force: He and his wife are in different units; he likely won’t ever be her supervisor.
“There is no requirement that they have to be in the same unit, command or, indeed, even in the same branch of service” to violate fraternization rules, Lepper said. “What is key is the potential impact the relationship could have on good order and discipline. As a lawyer, he, himself, is responsible for enforcing the rules essential in preserving good order and discipline.
“He and his wife are in the same service, on the same base, and the fact that he is an officer and she is enlisted defines the problem,” he said. “That he is JAG is another consideration.”
However, Lepper stressed that the Air Force is “not punishing the marriage.”
“What’s love got to do with it?”
— Tina Turner
“We’re not against love,” Lepper said. “It blossoms in many different ways. … It’s not the marriage that concerns us; it’s the fraternization that led up to it.”
Lepper said evidence indicates some kind of relationship existed prior to the marriage.
“Her car parked at his apartment alone created a perception they were dating,” he said. “All of this essentially creates a picture of a relationship that the regulation is designed to prevent.”
None of the couple’s friends or co-workers knew of the relationship before the marriage, the investigator reported.
Joiner was Tech. Sgt. Veronica McQueen’s work supervisor; Sosatoledo had lived in the same dorm. McQueen had been unaware the two even knew each other, she told Uptmor.
“She … was surprised … because she had seen Staff Sgt. Sosatoledo at the Marine Corps ball as the guest of another individual,” the investigator reported. That annual Corps anniversary dance is in November.
In 1998, the Department of Defense made fraternization policies consistent. Now all services follow the same guidelines: Marriage is no defense against fraternization charges even if couples are in different units or chains of command.
“That an officer and enlisted member subsequently marry does not preclude appropriate command action based on the prior fraternization,” the Air Force instruction states. But the next sentence cautions, “That an officer is married to an enlisted member is not, by itself, evidence of misconduct.”
“The problem,” Joiner said, “is some people in charge believe just being married has an adverse impact, even though there are hundreds of such mixed marriages.”
Air Force statistics show that as of December 2002, of 5,891 married officers, 841 were married to active-duty enlisted members. Fifty-two other marriages involved officers married to enlisted members of the Air Force Reserves or National Guard. Ten of the married couples are assigned to Kadena Air Base.
There have been no Article 15s involving officers fraternizing with enlisted personnel in the past year, according to the 18th Wing Public Affairs Office.
Many of the officer-enlisted marriages, Lepper said, entailed one spouse being commissioned after the marriage took place.
Joiner, a Mississippi native, said he joined the Air Force because he always had a “huge respect” for the service. “Has this soured me on the military? Not at all,” he said. “At least not the institution. The problem is the people in positions to make a difference don’t get it.”