Retirement in limbo for Air Force NCO after sexual assault conviction

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Photo from Air Force Video – Master Sgt. Jeremy Zier sends a greeting to San Antonio, Texas from Incirlik AB, Turkey for Holiday Season 2013.


Sig Christenson

San Antonio Express-News

A senior Air Force NCO convicted of a sex crime in San Antonio had expected to continue serving on base after an administrative discharge board recommended he remain on duty.

It didn’t turn out that way.

Master Sgt. Jeremy Zier was told to stay home while receiving pay and benefits. He couldn’t go to the office or do his job. At one point forbidden from even driving onto Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, he now wants to retire from the Air Force.

The Pentagon hasn’t responded to his request, but his San Antonio-based lawyer said if commanders refuse to grant it, he’ll sue. He contends the Air Force is trying to drum him out without retirement benefits he earned over a quarter-century.

The lawyer, Jeffrey Addicott, said he believes the Air Force intends to let Zier’s term of service expire without processing his retirement paperwork. If that happens, he’ll be out of the service without a pension.

A senior master sergeant at the time of his conviction, Zier, 42, of Converse, was found guilty in August 2020 of abusive sexual contact and dereliction of duty in a special court-martial. A Randolph jury reduced him one grade in rank.

Critics decry the outcome as light punishment because 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. Still, it was a rare conviction by Pentagon standards.

Some 6,236 sexual assault and harassment reports were filed by service members in fiscal year 2019. Of those, 1,630 sexual assault cases resulted in discipline, including 795 court-martial charges. Of those fewer than half — 363 — went to trial, and 264 ended in convictions.

Zier was a master sergeant while Cambria Ferguson, now 27, 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 said she was the second-lowest-ranking airman there.

The discharge board of three military members determined the Air Force should keep Zier in uniform. Addicott said the board could have recommended that he be kicked out of the Air Force with an other-than-honorable discharge after the trial, precluding him from earning retirement benefits, yet did not when it recommended he remain on duty.

The Air Force won’t discuss the case. Joint Base San Antonio spokesman Rob Strain said a decision is pending with Air Force leaders and that “it would be inappropriate to speculate about potential outcomes.”

Ferguson, who is now a technical sergeant, had no sympathy for Zier’s predicament.

“Why does this predator continue to receive support for harming airmen and not upholding his (senior noncommissioned officer) responsibilities? This does not reflect excellence, integrity or honorable service,” she said in an email, citing the Air Force’s core values.

Ferguson, who agreed to reveal her identity, expressed outrage to the Express-News when she learned the discharge board said Zier should stay in the service. Though listed in a Texas Department of Public Safety sex offender website, Zier insisted he did nothing to Ferguson that he can recall, telling the Express-News that he never “knowingly” touched her.

Zier went on to say that Ferguson babysat his daughter, a toddler, two and possibly three times after the incident — once that summer — and he only learned of her allegations in early 2000, after they crossed paths at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, Md.

Zier said Ferguson reunited with his family at a hotel while they were at DINFOS.

“I just think that if you understand how the process played out and you actually heard the facts of the case, you would wonder why this was even prosecuted,” he said.

Addicott, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who heads St. Mary’s University’s Warrior Defense Project, represents Zier along with Georgetown attorney John Escover, who said Lt. Col. Greg Hignite, commander of the Randolph-based Air Force Public Affairs Agency, launched the administrative process to deny their client his retirement. Escover said Hignite began the process under an Air Force instruction just a few weeks after Zier submitted his retirement papers on Aug. 14, 2020.

That was the day he was sentenced at Randolph.

“It is unclear if Jeremy’s application was even forwarded for consideration,” Escover said in an email. “On December 10, 2020, the board, like the special court martial, after hearing testimony and considering evidence, determined Jeremy should be retained in the Air Force, or in other words permitted to retire.”

Ferguson said she was present on a Zoom call in which Hignite revealed that the discharge board’s decision conflicted with a recommendation he gave it, and that he was disappointed in the outcome.

Zier, who has two children, can drive on and off Randolph and go there for medical appointments, but cannot work on the base.

“He’s got the scarlet A on him, there’s no doubt about it,” Addicott said. “They’re using everything they can to maneuver around the outcome of his court martial. There is simply no room for forgiveness or rehabilitation, nothing.”

Ferguson, who is stationed at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., said Zier has no business being around other airmen.

“I do not believe anyone convicted of sexually assaulting an airman should ever be allowed near them again,” she said. “Not only does this put others at risk, it keeps him in the victim’s chain of command after trial.”

Zier was charged with one specification of dereliction of duty in Pamukkale, Turkey, in April 2015 and three specifications of abusive sexual contact in three different locations, one of them San Antonio. An Air Force charge sheet stated Zier touched the genitals and inner thigh of the victim in Turkey “with an intent to gratify his sexual desire, without her consent” while in the hot tub. It said he was derelict by removing his clothes while in a hot tub with other, lower-ranking airmen — both men and women.

Zier, who had been selected for promotion to chief master sergeant, a rank achieved by just 1 percent of the enlisted force in any service, has not been promoted.

Zier got a break when he was tried by a special court-martial, where the penalties are relatively light. The Air Force referred the charges against Zier, alleging multiple sex offenses, to the special court, limiting the maximum sentence to no more than 12 months.

If he had been tried in a general court-martial, his maximum sentence for abusive sexual contact would have been seven years and a dishonorable discharge, with a total of 21 years’ confinement on other charges he faced involving two other women.

Zier had been the Air Force Public Affairs Agency headquarters’ flying program manager at Randolph. The agency’s subordinate commands provide photo and video documentation of Air Force and Defense Department missions worldwide.

Addicott said his client had been stripped of all responsibilities for a year and a half.

When Zier’s unit returned to partial office operations, he continued to telework from home and his desk was packed up by a co-worker. His work assignments since August 2020 have been light, ranging from completing a half-hour suicide prevention training program to spending an hour compiling the quarterly newsletter.

Asked if he was continuing to be punished, Zier replied, “Absolutely. There’s really no doubt about that. I mean, the fact that they’re content with having me do nothing, that just shows that there’s definitely more behind it than just the decision — like they’re clearly making a point to make this personal.

“I feel angry about the whole system,” he added.

Ferguson resents Zier’s sense of victimization.

“He has never shown remorse for his actions other than stating he wished he never went on the trip,” she wrote in the email. “He has never said he regrets sexually assaulting me — on the record, or under oath.”

Ferguson said she’ll likely be out of the Air Force before the man convicted of sexually assaulting her. She’s still angry about his punishment, which she described as “one of the lightest sentences to date for a sex crime UCMJ violation. Nothing about that equates to persecution. If anything, I am the one not being taken care of.”

sigc@express-news.net

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