San Antonio Express-News
A senior Air Force non-commissioned officer convicted in San Antonio of groping a subordinate at an air base in Turkey will be allowed to retire.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III decided Tuesday to demote Master Sgt. Jeremy Zier to technical sergeant and granted his request to retire in lieu of an administrative discharge.
His retirement had been uncertain after his victim and sexual assault advocates pressed to have him forced out of the service without retirement benefits.
” Sergeant Zier had a special responsibility and duty to protect and look after the airmen under his authority,” Kendall said in a statement to the San Antonio Express-News. “While serving as a master sergeant, Sergeant Zier’s misconduct against a fellow airman violated that trust and his duty as an Air Force leader. Such conduct is unacceptable, does not meet Air Force standards, and won’t be tolerated.”
Zier’s attorney, Jeffrey Addicott, had accused the Air Force of intending to have his term of service expire without processing his retirement paperwork. If that had happened, he would have been out of the service without a pension.
Addicott threatened to sue the Air Force if the matter was not resolved. He said Wednesday afternoon that he considered the decision a victory since the service was “clearly attempting to push Zier out of the military with no retirement at all.”
“However, the action by (Kendall) to grant his earned retirement but then to unilaterally reduce Zier one grade in rank for conduct that he was already punished for via a courts-martial is unlawful and we will be appealing that action,” added Addicott, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and director of the Warrior Defense Project at St. Mary’s University School of Law.
Zier’s victim, Cambria Ferguson, declined to comment, though she has expressed anger in previous interviews that an Air Force panel recommended keeping him in the service after his conviction.
Zier was a master sergeant and Ferguson was an airman first class when he groped her in a hot tub in 2015. He was the highest-ranking NCO in their office at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, serving as superintendent of a detachment called AFN Incirlik.
Zier, now 42 and living in Converse, is listed in the Texas Department of Public Safety sex offender website, but has insisted he did nothing to Ferguson that he could recall, telling the Express-News in January that he never “knowingly” touched her.
Ferguson said in a 2020 interview that he tried several times to put his hand on her inner thigh, and finally touched her genitals, while they were in the hot tub in swimsuits along with several other junior airmen and two NCOs during “a professional office weekend.”
Ferguson said she left the tub, upset, and Zier followed her and pulled off her swimsuit top.
In 2020, an all-officer jury in San Antonio found Zier guilty of abusive sexual contact for the groping, and the jury found he committed a separate offense, dereliction of duty, for later entering the hot tub nude to join other subordinates.
Victim advocates lambasted the jury for not handing down jail time in its August 2020 decision. Zier could have received a year in jail as well as six months’ forfeiture of pay and allowances, three months’ hard labor and reduction in rank to airman basic.
It was still a rare outcome in a military where only 363 sexual assault cases out of 795 that had resulted in court-martial charges went to trial — and only 264 ended in convictions — in fiscal year 2019.
The vast majority of such investigations don’t even result in a criminal charge. Altogether, 6,236 sexual assault and harassment reports were filed by service members that year.
A three-member discharge board determined the Air Force should keep Zier in uniform in a Dec. 10, 2020 finding.
The Joint Base San Antonio commander then recommended that Zier be discharged by the Air Force secretary.
Even if Zier had been given an other-than-honorable discharge, the worst characterization he could receive in an administrative hearing, he would still would have kept his retirement benefits — though possibly not all his VA benefits — because he has more than 20 years’ service in the Air Force.
The Air Force, in its statement, said Zier was notified of the secretary’s action in January and given time to respond. After considering his response, Kendall decided to demote him to technical sergeant and grant his request to retire.
His retirement date has not yet been set, Air Force spokeswoman Rose Riley said Wednesday. While retirements are characterized as honorable, she added, the secretary’s decision to demote Zier would “carry a significant loss” of pension income over his lifetime.
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