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A different kind of duty reinforced my faith in the AF system

Administrative discharge boards are one tool the Air Force uses to maintain good order and discipline, and give Airmen a fair trial in cases of misconduct. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by 1st Lt. Madeline Krpan)

Administrative discharge boards are one tool the Air Force uses to maintain good order and discipline, and give Airmen a fair trial in cases of misconduct. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by 1st Lt. Madeline Krpan)

KUNSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --

In my relatively short time as a voting, active U.S. citizen above the age of 18, I’ve been called for jury selection in my home district once -- but spent the majority of my mandatory days off waiting in a small room with other prospective jurors glancing at the clock, waiting to be told “yes, you’ve been selected” or “no, better luck in ten years.”

 It was a “no” before anyone even interviewed me.

I left, a little dejected, having gotten excited about carrying out my civic duty before even being old enough to legally rent a car. I’d seen “Twelve Angry Men” in school, and I pictured myself in a dramatic scene, deliberating in a hot room on a stormy night with the other jurors.

Fast forward two active duty Air Force assignments, when I found myself in a hot deliberation room, in service dress, along with five other officers. I was appointed to an administrative discharge board—something I’d only ever heard of in passing.

I walked in to the courtroom as the proceedings began. Frankly, I was unprepared for what I would encounter.

Yet sitting on a board of officers in this administrative discharge proceeding was one of the most formative, enlightening, and heartening experiences I have had on active duty so far.

Over the course of two days and an extremely long night, I participated in a process that very few Airmen see, handled information that few people were privy to, and gained confidence in my Air Force and the justice system that guards our core values.

Throughout training in ROTC and technical school, at commander’s calls and promotion ceremonies, the Air Force core values are revisited in a steady drumbeat: Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do. 

Receiving the opportunity to participate as a panel member in a trial of this type reinforced my faith that these values are enforced, justice is served, and most importantly, it is other Airmen who ultimately make these life-changing decisions for their wingmen.

I quickly learned the basics: in an administrative discharge board, three or five officers are appointed by the convening authority (in this case, the wing commander) to consider all relevant and material evidence about a discharge case.

A legal advisor, typically a field grade judge advocate from a different base, will impartially preside over the proceedings. An Air Force recorder, who acts as the attorney representing the interests of the U.S. government, will present evidence to the board of officers to show why the respondent should be discharged administratively. The Area Defense Counsel, who acts as the attorney representing the respondent, will present evidence in favor of keeping the individual in the active duty Air Force and vocalize the respondent’s views.

In our case, the respondent chose to be physically present, just twenty feet away from us.

Here’s the part where I was most unprepared: it was both reassuring and extremely unsettling to be in the same room as the Airman whose wrongful actions were on full display.

Administrative discharge proceedings can be initiated by a chain of command for a wide variety of offenses, ranging from showing up late to work too many times to drug abuse to sexual misconduct. 

In this case, the respondent committed sexual misconduct.

This is where it got emotional, personal and morally difficult. And this was the first of many moments that the team of extremely professional JAGs in the room reminded us that it’s our job to evaluate the evidence.

I believe the Air Force is on the right track in ensuring the correct team of impartial Airmen are up to the task of deciding the future of one of their fellow wingmen in the administrative discharge board setting.

The proceedings went on for hours, the majority of which were spent with my fellow officers in deliberation. We had all types of evidence to review, including written documents, photos and video. There was evidence both from the recorder and the Area Defense Counsel. There were verbal arguments to persuade our decision, like in all the episodes of Law & Order I’ve watched.

 In one of the most impacting moments, the respondent came before the board and made a personal appeal, discussing the many ways being discharged from the Air Force would drastically change their life and that of their family.

Unlike in a court martial, where a decision would be made based on the concept of “evidence beyond a reasonable doubt,” an administrative discharge board requires the board of officers to judge based on a “preponderance of evidence.” Put simply, is it 49% likely that the respondent committed these acts based on the evidence, or 51% likely?

 Ultimately, our decision leaned into the 51%. They would be discharged from the Air Force with an ‘under other than honorable conditions’ discharge—the worst kind possible at an administrative discharge board.

It wasn’t until I hung up my service dress and reflected on the events of the past two days that all of the emotions, ugly facts, and ‘what ifs’ hit me. My votes, along with those of my fellow officers, changed a wingman’s life that night as a result of their actions. It changed their family’s life. And it definitely changed mine.

Participating in this administrative discharge board taught me that holding the line, wearing the Air Force uniform, and keeping the people around me accountable to the highest standards means at times accepting tough responsibilities like this one. It required us to navigate a gray area but make a decision in black and white.

It also showed me that as Airmen, we must be involved in these processes and we must be impartial even when evaluating the gravest of offenses like sexual misconduct.

We owe it to each other, and we owe it to the future generations of Airmen that will make mistakes or do the right thing. They will need to carry out our missions with integrity, and we need to afford them protections for a fair trial when they don’t.

The Air Force doesn’t take “hiring and firing” lightly. My experience looking into the eyes of the respondent, my fellow Airman, while the decision was being read at the end of the administrative discharge board, is proof.