Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, then the 20th Fighter Wing chief of safety at Shaw AFB, is interviewed in 2008.

Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, then the 20th Fighter Wing chief of safety at Shaw AFB, is interviewed in 2008. (U.S. Air Force)

The Air Force fighter pilot and former inspector general for Aviano Air Base in Italy whose sexual assault conviction was overturned by his commander last year is complaining that his demotion and forced retirement is unfair, while one of his biggest critics in Congress called the punishment “nothing more than a slap on the wrist.”

Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning last week approved Lt. Col. James Wilkerson’s retirement at the rank of major. Wilkerson chose to retire after he was ordered to show cause to remain on active duty.

Wilkerson had been selected for promotion to colonel before he was found guilty last year of the aggravated sexual assault of a houseguest, and spent three months in jail. Then, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, the officer who convened the court-martial, dismissed the jury’s verdict and had Wilkerson reinstated.

The decision outraged advocacy groups and members of Congress, and led Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to propose changes to the way the military handles sexual assaults — including a provision to ban military commanders from dismissing court-martial verdicts in many cases.

In May, an Air Force investigation revealed that Wilkerson had committed adultery and fathered an illegitimate child in 2004, prompting more calls for Wilkerson’s dismissal and the show-cause order.

Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, said the decision to allow Wilkerson to retire as a major is “another sad example of the military’s inability to adequately deal with sexual assault.”

Speier pointed out that Wilkerson would have gone to prison for a year and lost all retirement pay if the sexual assault conviction had not been overturned, and that reducing Wilkerson’s rank to major will mean a reduction in pension of about $500 a month.

Speier said the Air Force “should have gone much further and convened an Involuntary Discharge Board.”

Meanwhile, Wilkerson told the Air Force Times that he “emphatically disagree[d]” with the demotion and said his record proves that he served honorably as a lieutenant colonel.

Wilkerson also accused Fanning of bending to political pressure in making the decision.

But Nancy Parrish, president of advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, said Wilkerson’s argument is “patently absurd.”

“Lt. Col. Wilkerson’s actions have forever changed the lives of the victim and her family. He has brought disgrace on the uniform and our nation. Our military ‘justice’ system is to blame for why he is a free man, not politics,” Parrish said. Twitter: @jhlad

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