Pacific edition, Wednesday, July 18, 2007

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — An airman was sentenced Monday to one year in jail and given a bad-conduct discharge for using three other airmen’s Social Security numbers to take out more than $14,600 in loans last year.

Airman Basic Christopher R. Neal, 23, pleaded guilty to taking the Social Security numbers from papers in the 51st Communications Squadron office, where he worked as a maintenance technician. He filled out online applications and received three loans from Pioneer Military Lending between March and July 2006.

Neal, who was court-martialed late last year for being absent without leave, repeatedly told judge Lt. Col. John Hartsell on Monday that he was not thinking clearly when he got the loans.

“I was in love. I thought I was doing something to help my fiancee,” he said. “Not only did I end up hurting her, but I ended up here today, sir.”

The judge also ordered Neal to forfeit $867 of his monthly pay for the next 12 months.

A third charge of soliciting another airman to help him was dismissed under a pre-trial agreement.

Neal said he spent the loans — two of $6,000 each, and one for $2,690 — on groceries, rent and paying off some of his fiancee’s debts. He said it was easy to get the Social Security numbers, all from people who worked in his office.

“While I was working in the office, sir, the information would just be out in the open,” he said.

Staff Sgt. Jon Powell learned in November that someone had taken out a $6,000 loan in his name when he got a letter from the bank telling him he was behind on payments.

He found out three days later that someone had used his Social Security number to get the loan, but was surprised to later learn it was Neal.

“Essentially he was a good airman, and I didn’t think he would be capable of doing this,” Powell said.

Neal served eight months in jail after being convicted in October 2006 for being AWOL and breaking restrictions in the summer of 2006.

Before the events that led to the first court-martial, Neal faced administrative discharge. He had had a series of alcohol-related problems and had been punished twice under Article 15 of U.S. military law.

Fearing jail time, he fled to an off-base apartment and lived with his girlfriend. Base officials interviewed people in the off-base bar district, passed out flyers with Neal’s picture, and put 14 agents on the case.

His girlfriend contacted the agents, and they arrested Neal at his apartment 43 days after he went AWOL.

On Monday, Neal apologized for taking out the loans, and began crying as he told the judge about his difficult upbringing and past legal problems with the military. He told Hartsell he wanted to show he could be a good husband to his fiancee, who has remained with him throughout his courts-martial and first imprisonment.

“She was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “I used this money to help her start a new life, a new life for the both of us.”

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