Former 173rd commander Johnson retires at reduced rank

Col. James H. Johnson III leaves the Kaiserslautern, Germany, courtroom after his sentencing in June, 2012.


By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 8, 2012


HEIDELBERG, Germany — The disgraced 173rd Airborne Brigade commander who was convicted of fraud and bigamy in June has left the Army after being reduced in rank to lieutenant colonel.

Former Col. James H. Johnson III retired at midnight on Sept. 30, U.S. Army Europe officials said Monday. He left less than a week after an Army board reduced him in rank and a major general finalized his court-martial proceedings. U.S. Army Africa commander Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahue II, the convening authority in Johnson’s court-martial, approved the court-martial verdict and sentence on Sept. 25.

Donahue rejected a clemency request to reduce Johnson’s court-imposed fine of $300,000 fine, which Johnson paid in July.

The fine was about double the amount that Johnson had defrauded from the government, according to evidence presented at his court-martial, to woo an Iraqi woman 20 years his junior and steer contracts to her father.

An Army Grade Determination Review Board on Sept. 27 reduced Johnson’s rank to lieutenant colonel, said his lawyer, Lt. Col. Charles Kuhfahl.

Such boards can reduce 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.

Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of U.S. Army Europe, recommended that Johnson, with more than 26 years in the Army, be reduced to the rank of major.

But there was no evidence that Johnson had not served satisfactorily while a lieutenant colonel, Kuhfahl said.

U.S. Army Europe spokeswoman Col. Rumi Nielson-Green declined to comment on Hertling’s recommendation. But after Johnson’s trial ended in mid-June amid a widely shared perception that his sentence provided insufficient punishment, Hertling issued a statement cited by the Army Times saying that many people were “surprised” by the sentence.

Until his misdeeds came to light some two years ago, Johnson, an honor graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and the son of a retired lieutenant general, had been considered a model officer destined to become a general. He’d deployed repeatedly to Iraq and Afghanistan. He had impressed superiors with his dedication and intelligence. He’d been given command of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, among the most highly sought commands in the Army.

Instead, he retired as a convicted felon, after a number of humiliations, including being fired from command, stripped of his security clearance, handed a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand and being court-martialed.

Johnson could not be reached for comment.

But his former wife, Kris, who had sent an email to authorities detailing her husband’s affair with the Iraqi woman, including his misuse of government cars and travel vouchers, said she had few regrets.

“I still think he should have gone to jail,” she said in an email to Stars and Stripes.

The Johnsons’ divorce became final on Sept. 25, she said. They were married more than 20 years and had two children. Johnson at his trial said it had been “a marriage in name only.”

She is entitled by law to receive half Johnson’s retirement pay and benefits, now reduced by about $10,000 a year - from a colonel’s annual retirement pay of nearly $73,000 before taxes, to that of a lieutenant colonel at roughly $63,500, according to pay scales listed on the military pay website.

Kuhfahl said he didn’t know if Johnson was still residing in Germany, where he was assigned to USAREUR in Heidelberg following his dismissal as commander of the 173rd last year, nor whether he was still involved with the Iraqi woman, Haveen Al Atar.

But Johnson said at his trial that Al Atar, who’d been forced to divorce her husband when the affair came to light and been disowned by her father, had, along with her young daughter, become “the center of my life.”


CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story failed to attribute to the Army Times a statement from Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling saying many people were “surprised” by the court-martial sentence of a fine and a reprimand.

Col. James H. Johnson III, left, walks with his defense counsel Lt. Col. Charles Kuhfahl, to the courtroom at Kleber Kaserne in Kaiserslautern, Germany, for the opening day of his court-martial. Johnson pleaded guilty to 15 of 27 specifications, including bigamy, adultery and fraud. Behind them is Johnson's father, retired Lt. Gen. James H. Johnson Jr.