Airmen and guardians who commit sexual assault will automatically face military discharge unless they qualify for an exception to that rule, the Air Force said in a recent update to its department-wide guidance.
“Sexual assault is incompatible with our core values, the ‘guardian ideal’ and military service,” Air Force Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones said in a news release. “These revisions will significantly improve our ability to discharge those unworthy of calling themselves airmen and guardians.”
The new policy, revised June 24, reflects the work underway at the federal level to reform the Uniform Code of Military Justice and how the Pentagon handles sexual assault cases. While the Department of the Air Force argues it has “zero tolerance” for those crimes, critics say the system often falls short of meaningful investigation or punishment.
Air Force and Space Force officials can no longer consider a perpetrator’s home life, good character, service record or health conditions when deciding whether to kick out an airman or guardian who has been found to have sexually assaulted someone. Nor can they speculate about how likely a perpetrator is to do it again.
The changes appear designed to cut down on instances of retaining troops so they can keep their paycheck, because they are good at their job or because they have spent years or decades in service.
“The prohibition of consideration of the members’ good military character or service record moves the ‘zero-tolerance’ culture forward, omitting opportunities for the ‘good dude’ defense,” said Kate Kuzminski, a military personnel expert at the Center for a New American Security.
To keep their place in the military, airmen and guardians who face discharge must show — by a preponderance of the evidence — that they have not faced any other substantiated sexual assault or harassment claims and that the incident did not involve a minor or involve penetrative or oral sex, result from an abuse of power, or happen through coercion, force or deceit.
They must also prove that staying would not endanger “proper discipline, good order, leadership, morale and a culture of respect for the safety, dignity and personal boundaries of all members,” the department said.
Exceptions will not be granted to anyone who has assaulted a child, abused their position of authority, or has a prior record of substantiated sexual assault or harassment.
The Air Force hopes creating that standard of proof will make the process more objective and consistent than in the past.
“It is hard to imagine why anyone who has been found to commit a sex offense should ever be retained in the Air Force, especially a child sex offense. I believe these changes will go a long way to ensure sex offenders are appropriately removed,” said Don Christensen, a former Air Force chief prosecutor who now runs the military sexual assault victim advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.
He suggested the changes were fueled by lessons learned from the case of Master Sgt. Jeremy Zier, whom a 2020 court-martial found guilty of groping a younger airman and disrobing in a hot tub. Zier was demoted by two ranks and allowed to retire as a technical sergeant.
But Kuzminski doubts there’s a direct correlation.
“I think it’s more of a reflection of the sea change on sexual assault policy,” Kuzminski said of the Pentagon’s recent independent review of sexual assault prevention and response and moves to address the problem in the annual defense policy bill. “But I also think that the Air Force is out ahead on this issue in a way that’s consistent with their policy leadership on a number of workforce and [diversity, equity and inclusion] issues.”
In April, an Air Force judge found a two-star general guilty of forcibly kissing his sister-in-law in 2018 but stopped short of recommending discharge. Victim advocates saw the ruling as a step toward wider accountability in a justice system criticized for its nepotism — despite a long road yet ahead.
“For sex assault and rape cases, whether before members or a judge alone, the accused is found not guilty in the Air Force about 80% of the time,” Christensen said at the time.
Two airmen recently went public on social media with their stories of how they believe military and civilian officials have mishandled their cases.
Staff Sgt. Kacie Suchanek, an airman with the 125th Fighter Wing in the Florida Air National Guard, said on TikTok June 11 she was raped and beaten by a fellow service member in October 2021. She claimed her request to move to a different base was denied, and the Air Force declined to pursue the case because the alleged incident happened at another airman’s off-base apartment.
Prosecutors in her civilian criminal case in Florida sought a lighter sentence than what Suchanek wanted.
“They said that there wasn’t enough evidence, after I had provided a rape kit, photos of my ripped-out hair, bruises, my clothing, three witness statements and a controlled phone call of 35 minutes with my rapist apologizing and crying repeatedly,” she said.
Her video had racked up 3.5 million views on TikTok as of Thursday.
“In order to protect the victim, the suspect was moved to a geographically separated unit and given a ‘no-contact order’ with the victim,” said Florida National Guard spokesperson Maj. Miranda Gahn. “The Florida National Guard has no authority to take action against the alleged assailant until the civil authorities have completed their investigation and decided upon a course of action.”
Gahn added that Suchanek was admitted to a specialized trauma treatment center in Texas for 12 weeks and that the wing’s psychology and sexual assault response officials are in contact with her.
Another woman, Airman 1st Class Heather King at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, also turned to TikTok on June 19 to allege that local leadership is laying the groundwork to discharge her under false pretenses for reporting an assault at a previous base.
King’s video had garnered more than 8,000 views on TikTok as of Thursday.
“I’ve gotten left out on things, I’ve gotten pieces of paperwork that are bullshit … and it’s so that they can create a paper trail,” King said of Luke AFB, where she was transferred following her sexual assault claim.
Luke spokesperson Sean Clements said Thursday that the base is looking into King’s allegations of mistreatment.
“We are committed to ensuring that all service members are able to serve with dignity and respect, that all victims feel safe to report without fear of reprisal from leadership or peers, and that victims are properly supported with sufficient legal counseling, medical care and mental health expertise,” Clements said.
The women were unavailable for comment by press time.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.