Senior master sergeant convicted of sex crime should stay in the service, Air Force panel decides

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Master Sgt. Jeremy Zier sends a greeting to Saint Petersburg, Florida from Incirlik AB, Turkey for Holiday Season 2013.

Sig Christenson

San Antonio Express-News

An Air Force panel has recommended that a senior noncommissioned officer convicted last summer at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph of a sex crime be allowed to stay in the service, which has infuriated the woman he assaulted and victims rights advocates.

Brig. Gen. Caroline Miller, who commands JBSA and the 502nd Air Base Wing, has not yet made a decision on Senior Master Sgt. Jeremy M. Zier. But he could appeal her ruling, and acting Air Force Secretary John Roth or his successor ultimately might decide the matter.

The victim in the case, Staff Sgt. Cambria Lynn Ferguson, 26, said she learned of the administrative discharge board’s recommendation via a Zoom call and found it hard to accept that those she serves with in the Air Force “look at a registered sex offender and think: ‘Good enough.'”

In an email, she said she feels disheartened because the Defense Department “has been getting sexual assault prevention and response wrong for decades and has made no substantial behavioral change despite the data.”

“I do feel hurt. I do feel angry. But most importantly I feel betrayed,” said Ferguson, a combat broadcast journalist. “That trust was broken, and it’s been really hard putting back on the uniform knowing the Air Force won’t have integrity with me, despite all I’ve given to her.”

Zier, 41, of Converse, was found guilty of abusive sexual contact and dereliction of duty in a special court-martial by a Randolph jury that reduced him one grade in rank. He 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.

Zier was a master sergeant while 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 in Turkey, serving as superintendent of a detachment called AFN Incirlik. She was the lowest-ranking airman there.

If he had been tried in a general court-martial, Zier’s 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, said retired Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military assault and sexual assault victims.

The Air Force referred the charges against Zier, alleging multiple sex offenses, to a special court rather than a general one, limiting the maximum sentence to no more than 12 months. Zier was required to register as a sex offender after his conviction and is in the Texas Department of Public Safety database.

Reached by phone, Zier said he was with his family and asked if he could call back, but he did not.

Lt. Col. Greg Hignite, commander of the Air Force Public Affairs Agency, where Zier worked, has opposed keeping him in the service.

Air Force lawyers won’t comment “until the discharge process is complete and in order to protect the integrity of the discharge process,” said Jathzed “Jet” Fabara, a spokesman for JBSA.

Furious over Zier’s sentence, Ferguson wrote on Facebook after the jury’s Aug. 14 decision, “Going through the assault followed by a yearlong investigation process that ended in extremely disappointing sentencing today has me angry, sad, nauseous … so many other things I’m not ready to discuss.”

Since then, Ferguson said, she’s received more than 200 messages of support via social media from former co-workers and supervisors and other service members. Some were airmen with their own survivor stories, she said.

“You can’t go through a tragedy without a community,” Ferguson said. “Some already went through the restricted/unrestricted reporting processes before me and were beacons of light while I was trying to navigate the darker months. If it wasn’t for my partner, I don’t think I would’ve come out of this process where I am, who I am.”

Restricted reports are filed by victims who want medical and psychological support from the military but are not prepared to lodge charges. Unrestricted reports trigger criminal investigations and may lead to trials — although only a relative few ever get that far.

The Pentagon reported 11 months ago that only 363 cases went to trial in the 2019 fiscal year, with 264 ending in conviction.

“Some days I wish I never reported. My life would be a lot less chaotic. But when I get another message from someone struggling, I’m grateful they have a safe space and feel comfortable enough to reach out,” Ferguson wrote.

Other allegations

Zier continues to work at JBSA-Randolph. Until he was charged, his Air Force career had been on the rise, and he had been selected to become a chief master sergeant — a level achieved by just 1 percent of the enlisted force in any service. He was not promoted.

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 locations, one of them San Antonio. A charge sheet stated he touched the genitals and inner thigh of one victim in Turkey without her consent while in a hot tub. It said he was derelict by removing his clothes in a hot tub with lower-ranking airmen — both men and women.

Though Zier was convicted of abusive sexual contact in the incident in Turkey, the jury of three women and one man — ranging from second lieutenant to colonel — acquitted him of the same charge stemming from incidents with women in Charleston, S.C., on Dec. 7, 2019, and in San Antonio the next week. In both of those incidents, the women alleged that he touched their buttocks.

Interviewed last year, Ferguson said she had come out as bisexual before arriving at Incirlik to an office dominated by men and “locker room talk.” She said Zier was given to saying inappropriate things to airmen and that as soon as new female personnel arrived they were taken out for drinks.

Ferguson said Zier tried to ask questions about her private life that were “always sexual in nature” and that he did the same with other women in their office.

The issues raised in Ferguson’s case have rippled through the armed services for decades. The Pentagon last year said the number of sexual assault reports in the military rose 3 percent in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2019, to a total of 6,236, with the Air Force showing the sharpest increase. The number in the previous fiscal year was 6,053.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who’ve spent years battling to change the military’s handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment, were taken aback when told of Zier’s case.

Both said changes to the workings of administrative discharge boards should be included in the reforms.

“I think what I would start with is having a briefing on these boards and find out — this case is truly perverse, so I think we need to look at administrative separations generally now,” said Speier, a co-sponsor of the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act, which would affect how the military responds to missing troops and reports of sexual harassment and assault.

The bill was filed in reaction to the high-profile disappearance and death of a soldier at Fort Hood last year. It also would remove the chain of command from the process of deciding when to order sexual assault and sexual harassment prosecutions, as would a separate proposal Gillibrand has championed.

“This is a perfect example of the problem we face. Too many people in command cannot see these as the crimes that they are and do not fully appreciate how toxic and how corrosive retaining service members with this kind of criminal history is to the armed services,” Gillibrand said.

Zier was entitled to a hearing before the board, which consists of three military members, because of his rank and time in the Air Force, said Christensen, the victims advocate.

Christensen said the board had to determine that keeping Zier in the military is in the Air Force’s interest but wondered how that could be possible when he is now a registered sex offender.

He noted that an Air Force instruction states that anyone convicted of sexual assault must be discharged unless they meet a lengthy list of criteria, one of which is that the incident “was not the result of an abuse of rank, grade, authority or position.”

In recommending if someone should be retained in the Air Force, “the board or the separation authority must consider the impact of the sexual assault … on the victim and the views of the victim,” the instruction states.

Unlike military trials in the Air Force, the administrative discharge board acts in private and its decision-making process remains all but invisible to the public. In a statement, JBSA said Zier received character letters from colleagues who had worked with him throughout his career. Commanders, however, did not submit letters in his defense.

“Commanders have held the convicted member accountable, but they cannot direct specific outcomes for the court-martial or discharge board,” the statement added.

As male and female recruits march in formation at JBSA-Lackland, where mixed-gender training has been the norm for decades, they pass signs saying, “Integrity,” “Service before self” and “Excellence in all we do.”

The issue of how well those values were stressed came into sharp focus after a scandal a decade ago at Lackland in which 35 instructors were investigated for misconduct against 69 recruits and technical school students. Around two dozen trials were held, one for an instructor who was given 20 years in prison and later committed suicide.

The situation forced a makeover of Air Force training and helped push a congressional rewrite of military law.

Yet even if Miller, the JBSA commander, disagrees with the discharge board’s recommendation to retain him, Zier would have the chance to submit a rebuttal and the case would move to the Pentagon for a final ruling.

Ferguson, after seven years in the Air Force, is bitter and called the board’s action a “betrayal and utter hypocrisy.”

“I’ve lost a lot of sleep trying to reckon with this incomprehensible reality,” she said. “I don’t think I can continue to grow or be the person and leader I choose to be within this unethical, predatory, good ol’ boy hierarchy. Integrity offends those without it, and I’ve made a lot of enemies this past year for simply demanding the minimum standards be upheld.”

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