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Lt. Col. James Wilkerson speaks as the then 20th Fighter Wing chief of safety at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Aug. 11, 2008.
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson speaks as the then 20th Fighter Wing chief of safety at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Aug. 11, 2008. (Henry Hoegen/U.S. Air Force)

The Air Force fighter pilot whose overturned sexual assault conviction fueled a movement to change the way the military prosecutes sex crimes is being forced to retire, and he could be reduced in rank.

Lt. Col. James Wilkerson is retiring, the Air Force said Wednesday. Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of the Air Combat Command, issued a letter telling him he would have to show cause why he should remain in the Air Force or retire, Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley said.

According to the regulations, the retirement spared Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot with more than 20 years in the Air Force currently assigned as 12th Air Force chief of flight safety at Davis-Monthan Air Base in Tucson, Ariz., from an administrative hearing that would decide whether to retain or separate him.

But it does not insulate him from the possibility of being reduced in rank and losing substantial retirement pay.

A personnel board at Joint Base Andrews, Md., was conducting an officer grade determination that would decide Wilkerson’s retiring rank, Tingley said. Such boards are empowered to recommend reducing retiring officers with blemished records to the last pay grade and rank served satisfactorily, up to two ranks and pay grades, based on records and recommendations.

Based on Air Force regulations, among the materials the board must include in its review is a 12th Air Force investigation that in May concluded that Wilkerson had in 2004 committed adultery and had not behaved as an officer and a gentleman.

The revelation of that affair, which resulted in the birth of a child, followed Wilkerson’s conviction in November of last year 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.

The conviction as well as the jury’s sentence to dismiss Wilkerson from the Air Force and serve a year in jail, were overturned by Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, Third Air Force commander, in February. Wilkerson was reinstated, and Franklin tried to get him promoted to colonel and to “get him flying again.”

But it’s likely that it was the 2004 misconduct that directly led to Hostage’s ordering Wilkerson to show cause or retire.

“It is about time Wilkerson was at least held accountable for some of his reprehensible behavior. We hope this brings some solace to the Aviano victim and her family even though she was denied justice,” said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault.

Air Force authorities began to investigate whether Wilkerson had committed adultery after Stars and Stripes was contacted by the woman involved, who’d become pregnant and given birth to Wilkerson’s child. Wilkerson relinquished parental rights to the baby at the mother’s request, the woman told Stars and Stripes.

The investigation substantiated the adultery, concluding that Wilkerson’s “conduct was to the prejudice of good order and discipline, and was of a nature to bring discredit to the armed forces.”

The investigating officer outlined a number of potential disciplinary responses that Lt. Gen. Robin Rand, 12th Air Force commander, might take, such as a letter of counseling or reprimand, actions to prevent promotion.

“You, as the show-cause authority, could initiate administrative discharge proceedings based upon… ’serious or recurring misconduct punishable by military or civilian authorities,”’ the investigating officer wrote.

But the officer wrote: “In the absence of other misconduct to support this basis, a board of officers may be unlikely to recommend discharge.’’

In June, 12th Air Force officials said Rand had taken “appropriate administrative actions” but did not specify them based on privacy laws.

Franklin’s decision to overturn Wilkerson’s conviction and sentence came at a time of growing concern that the military was doing too little to rein in sexual assault, fueling a movement by federal legislators to strip commanders of the ability to decide whether alleged crimes by their subordinates go to trial.

Although Defense Department leaders have lined up against legislation that would give prosecution decisions to independent military attorneys, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in April proposed changing the Uniform Code of Military Justice to remove commanders’ authority to overturn convictions.

carroll.chris@stripes.comTwitter: @ChrisCarroll

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