Your Air Force

An airman’s wife was sexually assaulted by their Air Force sponsor. Now, she’s fighting to change the system

Then-Amn. Justin S. and his wife, Bethany, arrived at Kadena Air Base in Japan Oct. 6, 2017, for his first duty assignment. They were excited to begin their life in the Air Force, and eager to meet their fellow airmen at Kadena, Justin’s top pick for his initial assignment.

But all that ended the next day, when their official, assigned sponsor — then-Senior Amn. Steven Newt — coaxed them to a booze-soaked barbecue at his house and pressured Justin to drink. After Justin, Bethany and most of the other party-goers had gone to sleep, Newt was caught groping and kissing Bethany’s unconscious body.

Newt pleaded guilty last October to Bethany’s sexual assault and is now serving time in jail, but the events of that night traumatized her and left her suffering from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress requiring therapy, she said.

Now, Justin and Bethany — who asked that their full last name not be printed — are in a fight with the Air Force over what responsibility the service has for Bethany’s sexual assault. The Air Force failed to properly vet Newt, Bethany said, and because he used his official position to prey on her, the service bears some responsibility.

“I continue to struggle every day to come to terms with my senseless victimization at the hands of this Air Force representative,” Bethany said in a personal injury claim she filed against the Air Force last November. “I feel betrayed, angry, and shocked that the Air Force put someone like SrA Newt in a position of power and control over me that allowed him to victimize me. My first impression of the Air Force will always be my sexual assault at the hands of my official Air Force sponsor.”

For now, Tricare covers the cost of Bethany’s therapy for her assault. But if Justin leaves the Air Force — and after the assault, Bethany said he’s considering it — she’ll lose access to Tricare coverage. Bethany wants the Air Force to continue paying for her therapy if her husband separates.

Bethany also wants the Air Force to reform its sponsorship program to better screen sponsors and lessen the likelihood of predatory airmen using it to take advantage of others. The sponsorship program is part of the Air Force’s official orientation program to help ease newly arrived airmen into the base and local community during and after their permanent change-of-station moves.

“I’m concerned about … where my mental and medical health will be in the future because of this,” Bethany said. “It’s been two years, almost, and I’m still having issues from it. I don’t see it going away. I think this will be with me the rest of my life, to some extent.”

Bethany S. and her husband, Justin, say that because of the sexual assault, they are unsure about their future in the Air Force and want to ensure that Bethany will continue to have access to health care if they leave. “I’m concerned about … where my mental and medical health will be in the future because of this,” Bethany said. (Courtesy of Bethany S.)
Bethany S. and her husband, Justin, say that because of the sexual assault, they are unsure about their future in the Air Force and want to ensure that Bethany will continue to have access to health care if they leave. “I’m concerned about … where my mental and medical health will be in the future because of this,” Bethany said. (Courtesy of Bethany S.)

Justin, a maintenance airman fresh out of tech school, and Bethany met Newt when he picked them up at Kadena’s passenger terminal. They were jet-lagged, exhausted, without a vehicle, and didn’t know a single other person there. Newt took them shopping and to eat some food, and then to their hotel, where they spent a restless night.

The next day, which was a Saturday, Newt went to pick up a barbecue grill with another airman from his shop. During that trip, Newt commented that Bethany was attractive, according to a stipulation of fact agreed to by Newt’s counsel during the court-martial.

Newt invited Justin, Bethany and other airmen from the shop to a barbecue at his on-base home. Justin at first said he didn’t want to drink, the court document said, but Newt told him that drinking was like an “initiation” into the new unit. Newt handed out frozen mixed drinks and shots of vodka and tequila to the party-goers, who became drunker as the evening progressed.

Newt took car keys away from the people who had been drinking, and Newt’s wife laid out an air mattress. Everybody fell asleep except Newt and another airman, who began playing a video game. Justin and Bethany were asleep on a couch nearby.

The other airman was startled to discover Newt repeatedly kissing Bethany, partially removing her clothing, and groping her, and told him to stop at least twice. Newt told him, “This is my house. If you don’t like it, then get out,” and the other airman left. Troubled by what he saw, the other airmen then called his girlfriend, who told him to go back and help Bethany.

Newt continued to grope, kiss and disrobe Bethany. Justin woke up and was shocked to see what he was doing, while his wife was asleep, and began to repeatedly kick Newt until he fell off of Bethany. Justin tried to wake her up and cover her, while increasingly shouting at Newt, “What were you doing to my wife?” Newt denied knowing what Justin was talking about, according to court documents.

“I didn’t have any idea what was going on,” Bethany said in a July 15 interview. “I was out of it for all of it, which kind of makes it scarier, what happened. My shorts were down, unbuttoned, and then it kind of hit me what was happening.”

The Defense Department has been figuring out how to provide help and justice when the children of service members sexually assault each other on military bases since Congress required reforms in 2018. Those reforms are starting to rollout, but as one current case at Kadena shows, that rollout has been uneven. (Senior Airman Omari Bernard/Air Force)
‘How is this OK?’ Sex assault case haunts Air Force mothers

For decades, justice has been elusive on American bases when the children of service members sexually assaulted each other. Help for victims and accountability for offenders was rare in the nearly 700 reports over a decade that an AP investigation documented.

Two other airmen woke up and separated the two men. Justin and Bethany went outside, where Justin called security forces. Newt “appeared intoxicated,” the security forces reported — he answered the door in his boxer shorts, swayed around and, at first, tried to present a nasal spray container as his identification.

The police arrested Newt, and while he was being held in a cell, he flooded it, began banging his head on the cell walls and the bench and had to be restrained by security forces.

Bethany was examined at a hospital and tests found Newt’s DNA where he touched her on her body. She was “incredibly traumatized,” she said, and they immediately asked for a humanitarian transfer back to the United States, which took two months to process.

Newt pleaded guilty in October 2018 to two specifications of a charge of violating Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which forbids sexual assault, Air Force spokeswoman Lynn Kirby confirmed in a July 30 email. He was busted down to E-1, sentenced to two years confinement, and will be dishonorably discharged and forced to register as a sex offender.

Bethany began seeing a base therapist at Kadena to process her trauma.

“I had nobody to talk to over there,” Bethany said. “My husband and I, it was traumatic for him too. We were kind of distanced. He was my only real support over there, so it was hard.”

After they returned to the States, she tried to move on with her life. But when they had to return to Okinawa for Newt’s court-martial, it was emotionally straining and “kind of brought everything back up.” She began having nightmares again and resumed therapy for anxiety and depression when she came back home.

In a letter, Bethany’s therapist said her assault and subsequent PTSD has made it difficult for her to perform her job. She also suffers from chest pain and tightness, shortness of breath, headaches, heart pounding and sleep disturbances, and has withdrawn socially and from activities and interests she once enjoyed.

Bethany said that Justin was originally planning to spend his whole career in the Air Force, but after everything that’s happened, “probably not.”

Bethany believes the Air Force doesn’t do enough to train or vet its sponsors, and that there was a concerning lack of oversight in her case.

“When we were about to go over there, we didn’t have a hotel,” Bethany said. Newt “mentioned us staying with him. If that had happened, we would have been staying there a week or two with him. With this happening in one night, think of what could have happened [over a longer period]. There’s no rules to prevent that.”

Sponsorship should also be a voluntary program, she said. Today, she said, some airmen are ordered to serve as sponsors who don’t want to, and do a shoddy job as a result.

She wants the Air Force to put into place strict rules barring sponsors from socializing with their newly arriving airmen and family members.

“When you’re overseas, they’re in charge of everything in your life for the first couple days,” Bethany said. “They are your sole lifeline. They shouldn’t be able to bring you to their house and drink and then have you be stuck there, because they wanted to drink. That needs to be changed.”

When asked if the service was considering any changes to the sponsorship program as a result of Bethany’s case, Kirby said that the Air Force is always looking for ways to improve it.

“Sponsorship remains a critical element of ensuring a ready, resilient force,” Kirby said. “Sponsorship is a commander’s program and airmen are trained on their role as sponsors and are provided current information, customizable resources for sponsor checklists, and newcomer needs assessments. Sponsorship aids newly assigned members and families to become contributors to their new unit’s mission and community, and we continuously look for ways to improve the program.”

So far, Bethany has been fighting an uphill battle with the Air Force. Last November, she filed a personal injury claim seeking $5 million from the Air Force. But in May, the Air Force Legal Operations Agency denied her claim.

Because Bethany was assaulted in Japan, Stephen Eriksson, chief of the foreign torts and litigation branch of the agency’s claims and tort litigation division, wrote in the May 8 letter, her claim is not valid under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which explicitly excludes “any claim arising in a foreign country.” Erikkson also said the Supreme Court has held this act bars all claims for injuries suffered in a foreign country, no matter where it happened.

The Military Claims Act also does not allow a payment in this case, Erikkson wrote, because while Newt’s assault of Bethany was “reprehensibl[e],” he alone acted criminally, and was suitably punished as a result. That act only allows a payment for an assault or battery when it is conducted in the course of an investigative or law enforcement officer’s official duties, Erikkson said.

Bethany is now appealing the decision to the Air Force’s judge advocate general. She said the decision denying her claim because her assault happened in a foreign country “doesn’t make sense to me,” because it happened on an American military base.

“I don’t see that as Japan,” Bethany said. “That is the Air Force, that is America, we are on a base. It’s just a loophole that I think is unfair.”

Recommended for you
Around The Web
Comments