Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, the former Aviano Air Base, Italy, inspector general whose overturned sexual assault conviction triggered calls for change to long-standing military law, called his forced retirement and demotion to major an unfair and politically motivated decision. (Staff Sgt. Henry L Hoegen Jr. / Air Force)
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Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, the former Aviano Air Base, Italy, inspector general whose overturned sexual assault conviction triggered calls for change to long-standing military law, called his forced retirement and demotion to major an unfair and politically motivated decision.
“I emphatically disagree with [the] decision and believe my service record provides clear proof that I honorably served in the rank of lieutenant colonel, so much that I was promoted to colonel,” Wilkerson said in a statement to Air Force Times.
It is the first time Wilkerson has spoken publicly about his case.
The Air Force announced Thursday that Acting Secretary Eric Fanning had approved Wilkerson’s retirement at the grade of major because he had not served “satisfactorily in the grade of lieutenant colonel.”
“I am deeply troubled that the Acting Secretary, a political appointee, apparently succumbed to external pressure from biased victim advocacy groups and congressional representatives on a political crusade in making this decision,” Wilkerson said in the statement. “I have spent the last six months quietly trying to live my life in peace and rebuild my career after serving time in confinement for a crime I did not commit. All the while, I have watched as my name, and those of my family, have been dragged through the mud to satisfy political agenda without concern as to accuracy or fairness.”
Wilkerson was a colonel-select when he was convicted last November of sexually assaulting a house guest, a 49-year-old American civilian named Kimberly Hanks. Hanks went public with her story three months later, when Third Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin reversed the verdict. As the convening authority, Franklin had the final say in the case. Wilkerson was immediately released from prison, reinstated in the Air Force and later assigned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., where he serves as the 12th Air Force’s chief of flight safety.
Franklin’s decision, which was unusual, triggered lawmakers to introduce bipartisan legislation in both the House and Senate that would prevent military commanders from overturning a verdict handed down by a judge or jury or reduce a sentence without explanation.
In June, the Air Force said it had confirmed Wilkerson had fathered a child with a woman he was having an extramarital affair with nine years before, which is a crime in the military but carries a five-year statute of limitations. The Air Force said it had punished Wilkerson administratively.
The announcement renewed calls for changes to the Uniform Code of Military justice — and for Wilkerson’s ouster.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and two dozen other lawmakers demanded the lieutenant colonel’s discharge. The lawmakers also called for a grade determination to “assess whether Wilkerson should be demoted to his rank at the time of his first offense,” Speier said on the floor of the House July 10.
The head of Air Combat Command, Gen. Mike Hostage, issued Wilkerson a show-cause notification, which could have required him to make a case for staying in the Air Force. Since Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot, had more than 20 years of service, he was also given the option to retire.
“Unfortunately, the timing and outcome of my case only helped fuel the debate about the statutory role of a convening authority in resolving claims of sexual assault in the military. There has already been a great cost to many in this debate, including my family, and a well-respected general officer who had the courage to do what was right despite the ramifications to his own career. Although I am disheartened by today’s news, it is my fervent hope that my family name will finally be left out of what continues to be a debate with no easy answers. The debate for these issues belongs in a forum where constructive dialogue can occur — not in a newspaper, blog or microphone,” Wilkerson said.