Crimes are Never Black and White — -The Case of the Ready Room

photo by Hans Dorries

I remember the case like it was yesterday — 23 years ago. A Non-commissioned officer (NCO) walked into my office with an Article 15 (nonjudicial punishment) in hand. His crime: Larceny of a doormat. You are wondering why an NCO would steal a doormat. According to my client, he took the doormat for his squadron’s ready room. Before each mission, the crew members were reminded by their superiors to bring back a souvenir for the squadron ready room — the squadron’s briefing room where the crew assemble prior to their flights. It was a tradition he said. So, that is what he and another NCO did — they brought back a souvenir they took from their temporary duty location (TDY). They took the doormat from the entrance to billeting (hotel) on base where they stayed. They were proud to bring the doormat back to their squadron’s ready room. When they were taking the doormat, they did not have an ounce of evil intent — -it was for their squadron.

The NCO came to my office with a major from his squadron. The major confirmed that the members were briefed about the souvenir before they all went TDY. So, why did my client receive an Article 15? I am not condoning stealing. But under these facts and circumstances, it was unfair. It was unjust. I spoke with the squadron commander, the Group Commander, the legal office — everyone — to advocate for my client. To try to get them to see what they were doing was not right. I wanted my client to turn down the Article 15 — but he would be risking a conviction. On paper, in black and white, he took the doormat without permission. This is larceny by definition. (Note: The doormat was returned to the billeting at the TDY location). The commander issued this outstanding NCO a career ending Article 15 — an indelible black mark in his records. His friend also received an Article 15.

I obtained statements from squadron members confirming that this was a tradition at that time — at least at that squadron 23 years ago (I don’t know if this was a tradition in all squadrons). The statements corroborated that they were briefed about the souvenir for the ready room prior to their TDY. Nonetheless, the NCO with the impeccable record got an Article 15.

Why did the command feel so strongly that he had to ruin the careers of these two NCOs. Was this justice? Why did they have to make an example out of the NCOs — especially when officers encouraged this behavior?

The NCOs were demoralized and disappointed in their chain of command. They left the service several months later when their term of service expired. My client did not deserve an Article 15 based upon all of the facts and circumstances of this case. Crimes are never black and white. That is why leaders use judgment to determine the most appropriate punishment for an offense. And while this is not a typical case, it goes to show you that mistakes happen. Bad things happen to good people.

If that NCO had received a good butt chewing, perhaps he would have still been in the USAF today. He would have perhaps achieved the rank of CMSgt. He would have served his country honorably on deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan — that’s the type of NCO he was. I don’t know what he is doing now. But, I do know that he lost faith in the system that day and he lost faith in the United States Air Force.

The United States Air Force is a wonderful institution. It teaches honor and respect and integrity and doing the right thing. The USAF values justice, due process, equity and fairness. But the USAF is comprised of human beings who sometimes make bad decisions that have everlasting impact on their subordinates.

If you feel you suffered injustice, the USAF (as do all other services) has a process whereby you can submit an application to correct the error or injustice. The Armed Forces knows that mistakes happen. The Board for the Correction of Military Records and the Discharge Review Board serve the military community to correct errors and injustice. It is never too late to correct an injustice. Never ever give up.

Ferah Ozbek is a retired from the U.S. Air Force where she served as an active duty judge advocate for over 20 years. She continues to practice military law and represents military members and veterans who are facing injustice. To learn more about how Ferah can help you if you are facing Nonjudicial Punishment or want to Upgrade your Discharge or Correct your Military Records, send her an e-mail at ferah@ferahozbek.com or direct message her on LinkedIn. Visit Ferah’s website at ferahozbek.com