Army colonel accused of rape avoids court-martial, still faces forced retirement nearly a year later
Stars and Stripes July 14, 2022
Nearly 10 months after an Army officer faced an administrative hearing for allegations that he raped his children’s live-in nanny more than a decade ago, he remains in the service working at the Army Surgeon General’s Office, according to service officials.
Col. Chris Warner, 48, is a psychiatrist who is no longer seeing patients and has no leadership role as he awaits a final approval to remove him from the Army — a decision made during an administrative hearing in late September by a three-member panel of general officers, known as a board of inquiry, according to the service and documents from the victim in the case.
The findings of that panel are still being evaluated by the Army Review Boards Agency, according to the Surgeon General’s Office, which issued a statement that it would “not speculate on the outcome of that review.”
The Army also has declined to comment on the results of the hearing or what punishment is pending review.
However, Warner could be discharged from the Army and forced to retire, with a decision most likely to be announced in August or September, according to Amber, the former nanny, and Don Friedman, her attorney. A rank reduction to as low as captain is possible, according to Friedman.
Stars and Stripes typically does not name victims in sexual-assault cases, but Amber gave permission to use her first name.
“Warner was not court-martialed only because the Army did not believe that he could be convicted of the equivalent of first-degree rape, which is the only charge not barred by the statute of limitations,” according to an email to Amber from Friedman after he met the Army’s attorneys working on the case.
Warner was removed from his job as commander of Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., on Oct. 2, 2020, shortly after Amber contacted the Army Criminal Investigation Division and said Warner raped or sexually assaulted her three times at his Georgia home in 2007.
At the time, Warner was assigned to Winn Army Community Hospital at Fort Stewart, Ga., where he was chief of behavioral health medicine and the 3rd Infantry Division psychiatrist from 2005 to 2010, according to the Coastal Courier newspaper. Amber lived with Warner and his family in their off-base home to care for the family’s four children, she said.
Amber, then 19, accepted the job just as Warner, then 33, was preparing for a deployment to Iraq. In the few months between Amber moving in and Warner’s deployment, she said he raped her in her bedroom, in a family room and forced her to perform oral sex.
Investigators determined the allegations to be credible and sent them to Warner’s commander for a decision on whether criminal charges should be filed.
“I got this false sense of, ‘Hey, we did it. We heard you. We believe you.’ That they saw him for what he is,” Amber said. “It felt like the military had to do something to placate me. But I don’t feel like it was taken as serious as it should have been.”
Instead of a court-martial, Warner received a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand, or GOMOR, followed by the board of inquiry hearing that took place at JBLM one year after he was removed from his command. Base officials did not respond to questions about why Lt. Gen. Randy George, former I Corps and JBLM commander, chose not to send the case to a court-martial but found enough cause to formally reprimand Warner.
An attorney for Warner did not respond to requests for comment.
The type of administrative board hearing that Warner faced was highlighted as worrisome and possibly biased in a Defense Department review last year on sexual assault and harassment in the military.
The report of the 90-day Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military, which was released in July 2021, called for the Pentagon to conduct a separate “extensive review” of the process to determine whether systemic issues regarding equity and accountability exist.
“Because there was no data for the IRC to examine, the anecdotal concerns we heard from military sexual-assault survivors resounded with unanimity: these boards are not impartial and more often than not, decide to retain service members with substantiated incidents of sexual harassment or assault,” the report stated.
The commission said administrative boards are made of service members “hand selected” by commands and have no legal training.
Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and director of government relations for the advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network, said she agreed with the concerns the review commission found.
“The biggest problem is you can use them for ill or for good and there's not enough oversight,” she said. “There’s not enough data or record keeping on some of these things.”
‘Did I do all this for nothing?’
In the board review of Warner’s case, three general officers for his hearing evaluated evidence for five allegations: rape, extramarital misconduct, conduct unbecoming of an officer, the GOMOR and the relief for cause, according to information provided by Amber. The board determined the evidence presented for two days showed he committed the four lesser allegations but not rape. The board recommended Warner be discharged from the Army.
However, the Army hasn’t released any of these findings publicly, nor have they said who sat on the board. It all remains pending approval, the service said. Once completed, the board is considered administrative and much of its proceedings are shielded by the Privacy Act, which blocks the public release of some personally identifiable information. Even Amber has been told she can’t have copies of the evidence that she helped collect, such as copies or transcripts of a phone call that criminal investigators recorded between her and Warner.
Following the hearing at JBLM, a transcript of it was sent to the Army Review Boards Agency to determine the rank at which Warner should be discharged, said Col. Joey Sullinger, spokesman for JBLM. From there, the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs will determine whether to approve the board’s decision.
Meanwhile, Warner moved in December from Washington state to Virginia, where he is working on special projects and administrative support for the Army Medical Command chief of staff, according to the Surgeon General’s Office.
His medical license also remains in good standing in Indiana, according to online state records.
Amber said the slow and private process was not how she thought the criminal report would be handled when she came forward two years ago. Instead of seeing justice, she said she found frustration and doubt about whether the trauma that reporting has caused her was worth it.
“It left me with so many more questions,” said Amber, who initially came forward so no one else could be harmed as she was. Now she wants to share what the experience was like because she said she sees the system as broken.
Outside of providing testimony during Warner’s hearing, Amber was barred from witnessing the rest of it. She has no way of knowing what evidence was presented, she said.
“It left me feeling even more violated, and it left me feeling like, ‘Did I do all this for nothing?’ ” she said.
The review commission’s research found the procedures in Warner’s case are common, and the military is more likely to use nonjudicial punishment instead of a court-martial in cases of sexual assault. The military offers several forms of punishment outside of the courtroom, including boards of inquiry, such as in Warner’s case, and hearings led by the command known as an Article 15.
This is common because lawyers often don’t think they have enough evidence, Manning said.
“They opt for having a discharge board just to get the person out,” she said. “It’s something we work with Congress on.”
After the Government Accountability Office in May 2019 found the Army was not keeping full records on how many soldiers faced nonjudicial punishment, the service began doing so. However, the records do not track administrative boards, such as the one that Warner faced.
Fiscal 2021 is the first full year of complete records on nonjudicial proceedings and shows four colonels faced nonjudicial punishment, according to the Army. It’s unclear how many more sat before administrative boards.
Across the ranks, 25,127 soldiers were punished as a result of Article 15 hearings for nearly 31,000 offenses. That included 285 sexual-assault offenses. The data does not show exactly what punishments were issued.
The active-duty Army held 593 courts-martial during fiscal 2021, according to the Army Report of Military Justice for that year, which is compiled annually by the service and provided to Congress.
Oversight and transparency
The Independent Review Commission included two recommendations among the 82 outlined in its report on how to improve the nonjudicial punishment system.
First, the commission said the Uniform Code of Military Justice should be amended to establish a preponderance of the evidence as the standard for nonjudicial punishment across all services.
That means a commander would have to believe there’s more than a 50% probability that the person committed the offense, said Rachel VanLandingham, a former Air Force judge advocate and professor at Southwestern Law School in California.
That is the standard now for the Navy and Marine Corps, according to the commission’s report. However, the Army’s standard of proof is higher. It calls for the commander to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the person committed the offense, which is the same as in all military court-martial proceedings. The Air Force has no stated burden of proof.
The review commission argued in its report for the lower level of proof because it “is consistent with the need for accountability.”
VanLandingham said she agrees the services should all use the same burden of proof, though she does not believe the Army’s standard should be lowered. Instead, the other services should rise to meet it.
Their motivation to lower the standard is “highly problematic,” she said. “[Nonjudicial punishment] is a career killer. Wouldn’t you want that commander to have to say they’re damn well certain … when they are ending your career?”
The review commission’s recommendation is expected to be implemented by 2027, according to the Defense Department.
The IRC also recommended the military services should keep better records on the nonjudicial process and publish the nature and results of all disciplinary actions related to sexual misconduct, including punishment doled out in closed-door administrative hearings such as the one Warner faced.
“It's been shown there's racial disparity in courts-martial, and I would bet my bottom dollar that those racial disparities are even more magnified or greatly magnified in disciplinary measures below court-martial,” VanLandingham said. “Sunshine is a good thing.”
She said she would go a step further to use the data to hold commanders accountable for how they distribute punishment among their troops. To do that, the services need transparency, and they need to track the data.
The Army said it has already begun to do this at each installation based on the findings of a separate outside review conducted at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2020. The other services have until 2027 to implement it.
Manning said each of the various ways to determine potential punishment in the military are important to have, and she commended the review commission for offering up ways to keep better track of each of them.
“We trust our leaders to have integrity, and most of them do, but not all of them,” she said. “We need some oversight to make sure these boards, which are good tools, are being run with integrity and fairness and justice.”
Two years after making the charges against Warner, Amber said she remains frustrated the Army board didn’t believe she was raped. She said attorneys and investigators who worked on her the case have consistently said they believe her story.
“The whole process has a way of making you think, ‘Am I crazy? Am I wrong for feeling this way?’ But to know that I'm not the only one to think this isn’t right, I feel like it helps,” Amber said. “It isn't right and there is bias.”