Two lawmakers have asked Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh why the Air Force has punished three pilots accused of using drugs even though records indicate the service had no evidence to support the allegations of drug use.

Four instructor pilots at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, were accused of using drugs based on text messages discovered by investigators, Air Force Times has learned. After one of the accused airmen was exonerated at an Article 15 hearing, the Air Force issued the other three pilots letters of reprimand, leaving them with no legal recourse. Based on the text messages, the Air Force stripped the three of their wings for "failing to maintain professional standards," not using drugs.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., wrote that they feel the punishment for the three instructor pilots was "excessive," the Sept. 15 letter says.

"In fact, at no point did investigators obtain any evidence beyond the initial text messages to support an allegation of illicit drug use; there were no witness statements, no drugs or drug paraphernalia were discovered, and all of the drug tests — that were submitted to voluntarily — returned negative results," Hunter and Kinzinger wrote.

During a separate investigation into whether a fifth pilot was having an inappropriate relationship with a student, investigators came across text messages that indicated the four pilots had taken drugs, according to the letter, which does not include any of the pilots' names.

However, many of the texts contained "song lyrics, movie lines, and other obvious cultural references that seem to have been painfully misunderstood by investigators," the two lawmakers wrote.

The Daily Beast reported Friday that the pilots' texts included quotes from the rap song "Pop Another Pill" by JellyRoll, as well as songs by Warren G., Miley Cyrus and the 2005 film "Wedding Crashers," with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.

Kinzinger and Hunter have asked the Air Force to provide them with more information about the case, such as whether investigators found any evidence of drug use besides the text messages, does the Air Force believe the evidence supports the charges against the pilots and what precedent exists for the actions taken by the Air Force.

"Once again, the punishment was derived from an investigation that produced less-than-sufficient evidence, and failed to find any association between banter-filled text messages and actual drug use," they wrote in the letter to Welsh. "The Air Force may not like showboating of any kind, even among its pilots, but to think that could be considered criminal, especially in the absence of evidence that a crime occurred, severely undermines the integrity of the Air Force's investigations process."

A spokeswoman for Air Education and Training Command said the administrative actions taken against each officer came after "an extensive investigation and were individually tailored" to the pilots and their alleged offenses.

"Some of the evidence considered prior to the command taking action in these cases included text messages recovered from the member's cell phones," Maj. Toni Whaley said in an email Friday to Air Force Times. "Letters of reprimand are used to both administratively document misconduct and achieve rehabilitative effects for offenses that are not pursued in a criminal context.

"Unlike non-judicial punishment, which is a distinct process provided for under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), a member receiving a letter of reprimand cannot demand or request to be criminally tried by court-martial."

The case was first reported by Air Force Lt. Col. Tony Carr (ret.), who writes the military blog John Q. Public. Carr told Air Force Times that he first heard about the issue earlier this year.

"Since late August, I've been writing articles covering this situation," Carr said. "I've also reached out privately to several legislators to call it to their attention, and made several unsuccessful attempts to get official comment from the Air Force."

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