How the USAF’s Toxic Climate is Degrading Military Justice

A gavel sits in the Luke Air Force Base courtroom Feb. 19. The legal office at Luke handles a multitude of cases involving adverse consequences and well as helping military personnel with their legal issues. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class GRACE LEE)

During a recent court martial hearing held at Laughlin Air Force Base, Capt. Chris Hill pled guilty to a range of charges involving unprofessional sexual relationships with subordinates, adultery, and obstruction of justice. His admitted conduct paints Hill as a man out of control and untethered from honor. He cheated on his wife openly, conducted several illicit relationships that violated clearly established rules to the contrary, and failed to take care of his family.

Hill was sentenced to 45 days confinement, total forfeiture, and dismissal from the Air Force. This is a harsh sentence, even taking into account Hill’s actions.

Dismissal is the officer equivalent of a dishonorable discharge, and carries with it severe and often lifelong consequences. In many states, dismissal is recognized as a felony sentence, carrying with it substantial nullification of civil rights. Federal law precludes dismissed officers from carrying firearms. Employment is problematic, and the social stigma never truly fades. It’s for these reasons that dismissal is ordinarily reserved for the most severe — usually violent — criminal offenses.

Reasonable people may disagree about whether what Hill did makes him as morally culpable as someone convicted of murder or rape, or whether even if it doesn’t, he’s still blameworthy enough to deserve the sentence he received.

But as always, the question of whether the outcome is correct in any case leads inevitably upstream to questions about the process. In considering those process questions, we form judgments about not just one case and one defendant, but about the functioning of the system overall.

Regardless of whether Chris Hill got the right sentence, there are questions about whether he was able to mount a meaningful defense. Those questions arise from contentions about the toxicity of the Laughlin Air Force Base climate created by its senior leaders as the investigations into Hill and others unfolded.

Officers assigned to Laughlin claim that in the process of going after Hill, leaders at wing and group level created an environment of fear and intimidation that dissuaded witnesses from participating in the legal defenses raised by accused members. Leaders made public statements that seemed to prejudge the guilt of accused officers. Those under investigation were sometimes issued gag orders preventing them from enlisting witnesses. Performance reports of those who dared to write character letters supporting accused officers were allegedly downgraded. The environment, it seemed, became hostile to basic civil liberties and legal protections, a contention currently under departmental review at the direction of the Air Force Chief of Staff.

It was within this environment that Chris Hill found himself trying to mount a defense, and the fact he wasn’t able to do so is perhaps as unsurprising as it is unacceptable.

A pair of emails obtained from Hill’s defense attorney, C. Brent Dishman, illustrate how Hill’s appeal to colleagues for character testimony ran up against fear of reprisal and an understandable impulse for self-preservation in a toxic climate.

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Clearly, this officer was worried that by mere association with Hill, he could suffer professional consequences and lose his ability to provide for his family. He assumes that helping Hill will follow him indefinitely.

The second example is more unsettling.

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The author of the email is referring to a recent message to the field from Gen. Mark Welsh, the Chief of Staff, wherein he put every airman on the hook for the content of any communication sent via any medium for any purpose, warning them that departures from “standards” or “core values” in such communications could lead to disciplinary action.

Absent clarification and issued in the context of an ailing service culture, Welsh’s vague and malleable policy is bound to create absurd impacts. In this case, it may have crossed the line dividing absurdity and injustice, having raised fear among at least one officer that his participation in the legal defense of someone disfavored by the chain of command would put him in the disciplinary crosshairs.

The result of such fear being raised service-wide is difficult to fathom. When people become convinced that participation in the legal process could ruin them, the process will become badly distorted. It might mean that no airman will be capable of mounting a proper defense against accusations of wrongdoing. This could crash the whole system and the service along with it.

It’s arguable that even with the help of colleagues, Hill would have faced probable conviction and a tough sentence. But the very fact it is arguable means it’s also arguable the outcome could have been different had he been able to enlist help. That potential difference is meaningful to justice.

Without the ability to enlist the necessary witnesses to mount a full defense, did Hill have any choice but to plead guilty across the board? Was he able to appropriately temper the judge’s view of his culpability sufficient to receive a fair sentence?

His lawyer doesn’t believe so.

In an email, Dishman explained how he’d argued in court that despite Hill’s manifest failings, he didn’t deserve a harsher punishment than others culpable for similar conduct. In recent years, high-profile leaders such as David Petraeus, Thomas Fiscus, and Jeffrey Sinclair have been implicated in similar conduct and either dodged court martial altogether or been dealt much milder punishment than the government recommended — and which was ultimately meted out — in the Hill case.

Dishman summed up with the following:

“No one is saying Hill’s actions weren’t wrong, nor that he shouldn’t be punished for them. I hoped the military justice system would not punish him more severely than his superiors nor create an environment of intimidation in which he could not get a fair sentencing hearing. I am of the opinion the AF failed on both fronts.”

Whether there is an Air Force criminal justice problem or merely a Laughlin problem is debatable. But clearly, there is a problem. At the very least, Laughlin’s senior leaders have chilled the legal process to a point that accused airmen may not be able to effectuate their entitled legal protections.

Scarier version: the service’s top officer has cultivated a kafkaesque environment of institutional paranoia that stands to distort every instance of the justice process across the entire enterprise.

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