James Wilkerson

James Wilkerson (U.S. Air Force)

Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, the F-16 pilot whose sexual assault conviction was overturned by his commander, prompting outrage and resulting in significant changes in the military justice system, will retire Jan.1, 2014, at the reduced rank of major.

Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning approved Wilkerson’s retirement at the rank of major on Thursday, said Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley, an Air Force spokeswoman.

“(T)he acting secretary concluded that Wilkerson did not serve satisfactorily in the grade of lieutenant colonel,” Tingley said in a statement.

Wilkerson, in a Friday statement to the Air Force Times, said he “emphatically” disagreed with the decision, and, “[I] believe my service record provides clear proof that I honorably served in the rank of lieutenant colonel.”

Wilkerson had served more than 20 years in the Air Force, when he was convicted in November 2012 of aggravated sexual assault of a physician’s assistant who was spending the night at his home in Aviano, Italy, where he was based at the time as inspector general for the 31st Fighter Wing.

He spent three months in jail before Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force, dismissed the jury verdict and reinstated the pilot.

In his statement to the Times, Wilkerson said he served time “for a crime I did not commit,” and suggested Fanning had “apparently succumbed to external pressure” in making his decision.

Wilkerson requested retirement after the Air Combat Command commander ordered him to show cause for his retention on active duty.

The show cause order came after the Air Force determined that Wilkerson had engaged in an adulterous affair in 2004 that resulted in a child.

Rather than go through an administrative hearing that in essence could have re-prosecuted Wilkerson’s sexual assault case as well as revisit the adultery, he chose to retire.

The acting secretary’s action was made in the course of a required officer grade determination after the retirement request.

An officer is retired in the highest grade in which he or she served on active duty satisfactorily as determined by the service secretary. The secretary may retire an officer in a grade lower than the highest grade held when the secretary determines that the officer did not serve satisfactorily in the higher grade.

Wilkerson was a major at the time of a 2004 affair. In May, a 12th Air Force investigation concluded that Wilkerson had committed adultery and had not behaved as an officer and a gentleman.

After Franklin overturned the verdict in the sexual assault case, Wilkerson was reinstated, and Franklin tried to get Wilkerson promoted to colonel and to “get him flying again,” according to emails the Air force released under pressure from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Franklin’s decision outraged lawmakers and subsequently resulted in the Defense Department’s agreeing to prohibit commanders from overturning jury guilty verdicts. Bills requiring a raft of other changes, including the required discharge of those convicted of sexual assault, are pending. And a push to turn over all commander discretion in sexual assault cases to military prosecutors has not dissipated.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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