Staff Sgt. Coty T. Ferguson, an F-16 crew chief with the 96th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, failed two physical training tests in two years. (Markeshia Ricks / Staff)
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EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Three fails and you're demoted. And for some, that could be a ticket to nearly 10 grand in cash and a fresh start on the GI Bill.
Prosecutors say Staff Sgt. Coty T. Ferguson, an F-16 crew chief with the 96th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron here, was fed up with the Air Force. The eight-year veteran had failed two physical training tests in the past two years and, according to testimony, he wasn't worried about passing the next one. In fact, they say, he bragged that failing would be his ticket out.
This is how it was going to work: A third failure would result in an instant demotion. Ferguson would be busted back down to senior airman. But because he's already served eight years, he would be over his high-year tenure limit, and automatically forced out with an honorable discharge, $9,500 in involuntary separation pay and a bright new future.
Prosecutors even had two of his subordinates lined up to testify against him.
But Ferguson said they got it wrong. And when he finally got his day in court, the prosecution was unable to prove his guilt. Now he's got to go back to work at a squadron where his command tried to prosecute him for actions prejudicial to good order and discipline for intentionally failing his PT test. A guilty verdict could have sent him to jail for up to a year.
Bragging about failure
Ferguson's crime was not failing his PT test. It was bragging to junior airmen that he planned to fail, said Capt. Steven Spencer II, lead trial counsel for the Air Force, in his opening statements.
Prosecutors say at least two airmen heard Ferguson make the following statement between Oct. 15 and Oct. 23: "I plan to fail my fitness test so that I can get out of the Air Force with an honorable discharge, all of my benefits and separation pay."
Ferguson failed the test Oct. 23. He testified that the statements were not intended to be boastful; he was expressing his belief that he could not pass the upcoming test.
Spencer, the prosecutor, painted Ferguson as a frustrated crew chief, tired of the long hours and squadron politics at Eglin. With two PT failures and another test coming up Oct. 23, Ferguson saw the failure as a quick way out of the remaining two years of his service commitment.
Two airmen testified that Ferguson told them about his plan. He already had two job offers, they said he told them.
"I asked him, ‘Are you planning to intentionally fail your PT test?' He said, ‘Yes,'" said Senior Airman Joshua Mouser, an F-16 crew chief with the 96th, in testimony at the court-martial.
Mouser said that when he saw Ferguson on Oct. 23, he asked Ferguson how he did on the test.
"It was easy. I failed," Mouser recalled Ferguson telling him.
Staff Sgt. Robert Knickle, who was then a senior airman, heard what Ferguson said too, but said he didn't take it seriously until Ferguson failed his test. That's when he and Mouser decided to report Ferguson to their higher-ups.
"It made me upset," Knickle testified. "He was a staff sergeant saying that in front of two airmen. It was un-NCO-like to say those things."
A dangerous precedent
Ferguson's words might have seemed un-NCO-like to Knickle, but they were not criminal acts, Ferguson's attorney argued. He referred to the Air Force instruction on the fitness program, which does not call for Uniform Code of Military Justice penalties for failing.
Ferguson's attorney, Capt. Douglas E. DeVore II, introduced several motions to have the case dismissed on a wide range of issues ranging from free speech protections to the Air Force failing to specify in its own policies that an airman can reasonably be expected to be prosecuted in some instances for failing a PT test.
Presiding military judge Lt. Col. Francisco Mendez ultimately threw out the first specification of prejudicing good order and discipline. He allowed the second specification to be decided by a five-officer jury.
Ferguson's commander, Lt. Col. Richard Flamand II, testified that he believed Ferguson's alleged actions would have set a dangerous precedent for a squadron in which 42 of its 447 military members, including Ferguson, have failed their PT test.
Struggled with PT
Ferguson described himself in testimony as a solid airman who didn't rise to the rank of staff sergeant quickly but was given responsibilities above his paygrade at nearly every base he'd been assigned before arriving at Eglin. He said he'd enjoyed his time in the service and he'd worked hard, following in the footsteps of his grandfathers, who also were airmen.
But he admitted he'd struggled with the PT test over the years. He had been in and out of fitness rehabilitation programs and even managed to drop 40 pounds to pass his test. He also had an ongoing problem with his back that he'd developed after helping a friend move.
He said he knew that it was the commander's policy to administratively demote an airman for failing a PT test three times, and he knew that he was out of shape and that he might not pass.
But he never planned to intentionally fail his fitness assessment, he said.
"I said, I feel confident I will pass, but if I don't, I had researched it and knew that I was most likely going to have a high-year tenure issue," Ferguson testified.
He believes what Knickle and Mouser thought was boasting was really him sharing what he had learned from his research, which included not only surfing the Web for information but talking to staff at the 96th Force Support Squadron.
Ferguson said that though he didn't know Knickle well, he had trained and mentored Mouser when Mouser arrived at the base in March 2010. During that time, he and Mouser were both senior airmen, and he thought they were friends. He testified that he was just sharing what he had discovered.
He said he told the two airmen he'd maintained contacts with companies like Lockheed Martin through civilians he had met while based at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and that he learned civilian crew chiefs make twice what he makes as an E-5, which is about $55,000 a year. And he complained about squadron politics.
"I know now that I shouldn't have made those statements," he said. "In my mind, I was venting to a friend, not as an NCO."
Lack of effort?
On the day that he failed his PT test, his back began to spasm during the run and he wasn't able to complete it, Ferguson said. He also failed to complete the pushups and the situps but passed the waist measurement, he said.
An airman who took the test with Ferguson told a different story. Master Sgt. Dorian Dillon testified that Ferguson didn't appear to be putting much effort into the pushups and situps portion of the test. He said in at least one of the components Ferguson stood up before maxing out the one minute of repetitions with time still left on the clock.
"I just thought he'd already failed the waist measurement," Dillon said.
The two men had never met before the PT test that day, Dillon said.
Many of the airmen who testified for and against Ferguson said that he didn't seem upset that he had failed his test, and that he was going to be demoted and likely kicked out because of high-year tenure. They said he seemed excited at the prospect of getting away from the long hours, low pay and office politics of being at the 96th.
But Ferguson said he's not the type of person to show a lot of emotion. He said he was disappointed in himself for failing his PT test, but he was confident that he had a Plan B for his post-Air Force life.
Staff Sgt. Lucas Lynch said he was present the day that Mouser and Knickle heard Ferguson say he was going to fail his test, but he said he didn't hear Ferguson say he planned to fail the test intentionally.
"He said, ‘I'm not going to pass my test, I'm fat,'" Lynch said. "I've heard him say it before."
But he also said that he wasn't present for the entire conversation and that he was surprised Ferguson wasn't upset that he might fail.
"I've had several troops fail and had to go over there with the ones that have failed to talk to the commander," he said.
Lynch, who was a witness for the defense, said that when he found out that Ferguson failed his test, the previous conversation "collided" in his head.
"My personal opinion would be that he did intend to fail it," he testified. "It didn't seem like he was in a great mood, but he wasn't sad. I believe he saw greener pastures and he wasn't happy with the Air Force. He said that his back gave out, not that he really tried. I believe he knew he wasn't in shape to pass it and knew that he would get demoted. He seemed excited about those [civilian] jobs."
Separation pay a factor
Though Ferguson was found not guilty, his case plays to the suspicion among airmen — expressed in letters to Air Force Times and in forum chats — that some of their co-workers are intentionally flunking their PT tests so they can exit the service early with an honorable discharge and their benefits intact.
While airmen are typically discharged under honorable conditions, and they do receive the GI Bill benefits and transition assistance, they do not receive separation pay, said Mike Dickerson, spokesman for the Air Force Personnel Center.
Airmen discharged for failing PT also might be required to repay any unearned bonuses. They are entitled to their accrued leave if they have at least six months of service left in their contract, but final authority to make that determination rests with the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, Dickerson said.
The more than 1,300 airmen discharged in 2012 for failing to meet physical standards received honorable discharges, as is standard across the services. However, those who are separated for misconduct connected to the fitness program, such as failing to attend fitness education and training sessions, may receive a less-than-honorable discharge.
It's only when airmen are demoted — and then involuntarily separated for some other reason such as high-year tenure — that they might be able to collect separation pay.
‘Big waste of money'
DeVore, Ferguson's defense attorney, said Ferguson's case will only increase the stress and anxiety that airmen already have about the service's fitness program.
"If Staff Sgt. Ferguson had passed his PT test, we wouldn't be here," DeVore said. "I take the PT test ... and I am glad to have an employer that requires us to be physically fit ... but I am fearful that PT is becoming a negative program instead of a positive program."
After he was found not guilty, Ferguson told Air Force Times he was happy with the outcome but will likely request a permanent change of assignment to another squadron at the base immediately. He is afraid of reprisal from his current commander, Ferguson said in an interview.
Because he has a third PT failure on his record, Ferguson will retake his PT test in January, and he thinks he'll pass. If he passes, he intends to complete his service commitment and then separate from the Air Force.