He is an award-winning combat photographer who stands accused of trying to pick up women in the public affairs office at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, and for that prosecutors wanted to put him in prison for 130 years.
The prosecutorial zeal was so great that an Air Force officer appointed to investigate the case said the piled-up charges were combined to “artificially exaggerate the criminality of the accused,” who often was simply “socially maladroit and crass.”
This is a glimpse into the new U.S. Armed Forces and its gender wars. It is a slice of military life stemming from the Pentagon’s order in 2013 to erase all sexual harassment and, to enforce it, staff the ranks with an advocacy bureaucracy to empower victims and make sure complaints are filed.
The accused is Tech. Sgt. Aaron D. Allmon II. The 39-year-old arrived at Minot, a nuclear arsenal on the northern edge of the continental United States, to teach others as one of the Air Force’s best at capturing war in photographs.
What he witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan stalked him all the way to North Dakota, along with diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol abuse. He carries prescription drugs to fight off nightmares and excruciating back pain. His supporters say the stigma of being an accused sexual harasser is so deep-seated that Minot top brass isolated him and deliberately tried to block medical care.
Sgt. Allmon, who denies wrongdoing, goes on trial Monday. The setting is a general court-martial, the military’s most severe, a felony arena. He is charged with unwanted sexual contact with four women: three Air Force and one civilian. The case does not involve rape or what the public might consider overt sexual assault or what could be defined as fondling.
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A Washington Times examination shows that, over a 14-month span, the women’s accusations, in total, amount to three kisses and six touches, plus a series of reported inappropriate comments of a sexual nature. If the married Sgt. Allmon did what the women said, he was tastelessly hitting on them.
Sgt. Allmon’s sister, Lisa A. Roper, does not believe the women. The business executive in San Antonio, Texas, is her brother’s fiercest defender. She estimates she will spend $200,000 on his legal defense, which includes a former sheriff’s deputy as investigator, a civilian lawyer and a former Army judge advocate who took the case pro bono. Sgt. Allmon is also represented by an Air Force judge advocate.
“I want you to understand how women can destroy a man,” said Ms. Roper. “It was out and out vindictiveness set up to destroy a man who didn’t do what they wanted. A group of young women who are brand new in the military and because they didn’t get their way they set out to destroy a man of 19 years in the Air Force.”
Maj. Jamie Humphries, a Minot public affairs officer, said the Air Force does not tolerate any form of sexual harassment.
“Sexual harassment or assault of any kind in our service is unacceptable and simply not tolerated,” he said. “I’ve never been in a USAF unit stateside or deployed where it was accepted. Does it happen? Sure. Is it unacceptable? Absolutely. When parents/guardians send their loved ones off to Basic Military Training, they expect guys like me will care for them, guide them and mentor them to the best of my ability. That’s my No. 1 job, and the officers I know take that responsibility very seriously.”
The Times’ examination produced a picture of the Minot public affairs office that was at times disorganized and needed discipline.
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The Times viewed a homemade video of staff members moving furniture in December last year. The “F” word was thrown around freely. Faces were made into the camera. A man referred to a female service member as a “donkey.” An enlisted man made fun of Sgt. Allmon’s ailments by shaking a bottle of pills like a rattle.
‘Artificially exaggerate the criminality’
As Sgt. Allmon was entering his second year at Minot in May 2013, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared war on sexual abuse in the ranks. He elevated the offense as a threat to national security. He put every command on notice that his goal was to eliminate the offense. The gender wars, if not starting that day, were entering an escalation.
“Sexual assault is a despicable crime and one of the most serious challenges facing this department,” Mr. Hagel told reporters. “It’s a threat to the safety and the welfare of our people and the health, reputation and trust of this institution. This department may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission.”
Next, he warned the accused.
“We need cultural change where every service member is treated with dignity and respect, where all allegations of inappropriate behavior are treated with seriousness, where victims’ privacy is protected, where bystanders are motivated to intervene, and where offenders know that they will be held accountable by strong and effective systems of justice,” he said.
Defense attorneys said at the time that remarks such as Mr. Hagel’s, and similar statements from commanders, would make it difficult to impanel military jurors who did not think it their mission to convict people.
Sgt. Allmon is now facing that military justice system.
The Times investigated the Allmon case not to assess guilt or innocence. The trial promises to be a series of “he said, she said.” (Sgt. Allmon denies saying many of the things attributed to him.) The Times wanted to examine one major battle, in a North Dakota courtroom, in the broader global war Mr. Hagel announced more than two years ago.
What strikes Sgt. Allmon’s supporters from the start is the fervor with which Air Force Office of Special Investigations and prosecutors went after him.
When the Air Force convened a pretrial hearing, known as an Article 32, in December, the government had stacked so many charges against the enlisted man that, if convicted, he faced over a century in prison.
“I cannot fathom how this got to the level this got to,” Ms. Roper said.
On Sgt. Allmon’s legal team is Jeffrey Addicott, a former Army judge advocate who is now a law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. The lead civilian defender is Virginia Hermosa, who practices law in Austin and has served as a prosecutor for the Texas attorney general.
Mr. Addicott is also director of the school’s Center for Terrorism Law from which he goes to bat for service members, pro bono, who he believes are treated unfairly by the military justice system.
In the Allmon case, he expresses astonishment that the Air Force is trying him in a felony court instead of seeking other administrative or lesser judicial options. As a comparison, he notes that the hearing officer in the case of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who is charged with the serious offense of desertion for abandoning his buddies on the battlefield, recommended a special court-martial, the lowest level, for misdemeanors.
“The full weight of the military chain of command has come down on Aaron because the chain of command has abandoned justice and elected expediency,” Mr. Addicott said.
“Because of the hypersensitivity associated with real sexual assault cases, the Air Force in particular has overreacted against Aaron in a manner that is absolutely an injustice but is also degrading the esprit de corps of unit cohesion all across the military. Even assuming all the charges are true, which they are not, this conduct as charged would warrant nonjudicial punishment, not the highest level of action at a general court-martial where Aaron could lose all his retirement benefits and go to jail.”
Mr. Addicott’s view has an ally, of sorts, in Lt. Col. Brendon K. Tukey, the investigative officer who presided over the Article 32 pretrial hearing where the four accusers testified. Sgt. Allmon did not testify, nor did he put up a defense.
Col. Tukey is a veteran of the military’s gender wars. He was the hearing officer in 2014 for a sexual assault case at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The woman testified that she was asleep in the male’s cadet’s room and woke up to find him raping her.
“If there was some other disposition short of court-martial, could you support it?” Col. Tukey asked the woman, according to The Gazette newspaper.
“Sure,” she said.
The Air Force declined to say what action Col. Tukey recommended. In the end, the criminal charges were dismissed against the male cadet, who faced administrative actions that the Air Force also refused to disclose.
For Sgt. Allmon, Col. Tukey scolded the prosecution in his post-hearing recommendation.
“Given the sheer volume of charges in this case, and the apparent tendency of that volume to artificially exaggerate the criminality of the accused, it is entirely possible that the trial judge will simply dismiss the offending specifications,” he wrote.
He also wrote, “The charging scheme exaggerates the criminality of the accused (as charged the accused faces 20 specifications carrying a maximum punishment including 130 years of confinement) for no real purpose.”
“In many of the individual specifications,” he wrote, “it could be argued that the accused was not so much motivated by sex or a desire to humiliate or degrade as simply being socially maladroit and crass.”
Still, he concluded, “Having heard the witnesses and examined the evidence presented at the Article 32 investigation, I conclude that generally speaking, probable cause exists to believe that Sgt. Allmon engaged in the conduct in the charges.”
Writing about one of the women, who said Sgt. Allmon moved her shorts up to look at her tattoo and touched her back, Col. Tukey wrote, “As with the other victim witnesses, I found her testimony generally credible and found no motive on her part to fabricate her allegations.”
Though Col. Tukey criticized the prosecution, he recommended a remedial way to help win a conviction at trial.
He condensed and rewrote the charge and then recommended the highest court-martial possible to what the military calls the convening authority. In this case, it is Maj. Gen. Richard Clark, the 8th Air Force commander. Sgt. Allmon faces a maximum penalty if convicted of 15 years in prison, loss of all retirement benefits, reduction to the lowest enlisted rank and a dishonorable discharge.
Mr. Addicott, Sgt. Allmon’s legal adviser, said criticizing the case, but then pushing for the highest court-martial, shows the grip that sexual abuse accusations exert on the military judicial system.
“The role the Article 32 officer is to make objective findings and recommendations to the convening authority putting aside all the inevitable ‘noise’ associated with any given criminal charge,” he said. “Sadly, he succumbed to the noise, which in this case involves the shrill screams of expediency. If nothing else, even a cursory review of the 32 officer’s report demonstrates how deep the insidiousness of political correctness has penetrated our military and its justice system.”
Allmon comes to Minot
Sgt. Allmon arrived in Minot in 2012 as one of the military’s most recognized combat photographers. After tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he worked with a joint unit in Hawaii tasked with recovering the remains of U.S. war dead in Asia.
The sergeant was expecting Minot to be a low-key assignment, sort of like a teaching position, showing young public affairs personnel how to use the camera.
Minot had been a place of scandal. An atomic powerhouse able to unleash mass destruction in wartime, Minot is the only U.S. base to house two arms of the triad: Silo-based Minuteman III intercontinental missiles and B-52H bombers, affixed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
In a major miscue in 2007, a B-52H flew from Minot to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, its pilots unknowingly carrying live nuclear weapons.
In 2013, a major scandal among Minuteman III operations officers involved test cheating and drug use. Morale hit rock bottom. That December, the overall Minuteman III arsenal commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, was fired for drunkenness and erratic behavior during an official trip to Moscow.
At this time, the public affairs office at Minot became a dangerous place. Depending on whom one believes, either Sgt. Allmon or the women around him were the victims.
Sgt. Allmon’s previous stops seemed to have prepared him for anything. He hooked up with special operations warriors, fighter pilots and Army brigades to capture in pictures the horrors and glories of Iraq and Afghanistan.
He deployed with an Army regiment that took part in the battle for the town of Tal Afar, Iraq, on the Syrian border in 2005.
The regiment’s citation for January and February 2006 said he “demonstrated technical expertise and his efforts to preserve the legacy of the regiment was critical to completing the regimental history project and documentary. His actions reflect great credit upon himself, the regiment of riflemen, and the United States Air Force.”
Sgt. Allmon had accompanied troops during the U.S. invasion’s earlier days. In 2004, he posted at the huge air base in Balad, Iraq, leaving 14 times to snap photos of American troops.
“He demonstrated exceptional composure by continuing to photograph, while receiving direct small arms fire and mortar rounds during combat patrols,” said a citation for an Air Force Achievement Medal. “He entered a tent moments after it was hit by mortar to ensure all occupants were out, and he assisted with the care of injured airmen.”
In 2008, he was named “military photographer of the year” for photographs titled “Solitude” of an F-16 jet fighter.
At Minot, Sgt. Allmon’s tenure quickly started going bad. In early 2013, he and a co-worker got into a dispute over a work product and she filed a complaint that he hit on her. That complaint was handled administratively.
The master sergeant who conducted the investigation said that in an office, with other airmen present, one knocked into her knee and Sgt. Allmon then touched the point right above the kneecap to show what had happened.
The master sergeant said he interviewed others in the public affairs office and none complained about Sgt. Allmon. The master sergeant could not substantiate the woman’s accusations of inappropriate remarks. Sgt. Allmon denied making such comments.
That summer, the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office came to Minot to talk about sexual harassment. A young public affairs service member covered the event and concluded that the offenses they talked about matched what Sgt. Allmon had done to her. She went to the sexual assault response coordinator. Shortly afterward, Sgt. Allmon found himself under criminal investigation.
Said Maj. Humphries, the Minot spokesman, “There is a tremendous amount of training we all accomplish each year in an effort to report/curb any sort of harassment or assault. Our sexual assault response coordinator program is robust and very active at every wing across the force. It’s drilled in our head from the moment we step off the bus at Lackland AFB for basic training. And all of this is a good thing. We spend a lot of time on this topic.”
The young woman accused Sgt. Allmon of propositioning her. She said he touched her hips while she was positioning herself in the turret of a Humvee vehicle to take photographs, and, another time, when he directed her as a model for a photo shoot.
Office of Special Investigations agents went to every office in the public affairs building and asked each woman whether Sgt. Allmon had ever touched them.
The Air Force did not only have the Pentagon telling it to wipe out sexual harassment. It also was dealing with the aftermath of a scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas where scores of male instructors were found to be sexually abusing scores of young female recruits.
At Minot, Office of Special Investigations agents found five women total, one of whom said she did not want to participate in a court-martial.
Of the four who do, one Air Force woman said that during a basketball game at the base gym, she and Sgt. Allmon were sitting next to each other on the bench. They were talking about tattoos. The discussion moved to one on her thigh, an inking of rose petals. He moved up her shorts to see the entire tattoo. He later touched her back as they were leaving the gym.
Another public affairs woman, a lesbian who was going through a divorce from her wife, said he kissed her on the forehead and held her shoulders, and had made sexually inappropriate comments.
Sgt. Allmon’s third marriage was also failing. He made it known during discussions of gays in the military that he opposed same-sex marriage.
The Times generally does not identify accusers in sexual harassment cases.
A prisoner of Minot
By this July 2014, when Sgt. Allmon sat down for a lengthy videotaped interview with Office of Special Investigations, his mind and body were breaking down.
Multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan — carrying heavy gear and one hard landing in a chopper — had injured his spine.
Meanwhile, the aftereffects of battle, post-traumatic stress disorder, sent him into bouts of depression and nightmares.
By this summer, his medical condition grew acute, but he encountered roadblocks to treatment. His sister found a dogged ally in Jared Broderick of Austin, Texas, a medically retired Army veteran of Iraq who fights for wounded warriors.
Mr. Broderick went to Minot in June and demanded meetings with its medical staff. What he found was that the criminal case against Sgt. Allmon had melded with his medical needs.
“They didn’t want him to get treatment,” Mr. Broderick told The Times.
A letter from the Trinity Medical Group, a private psychiatric practice in Minot, said the clinic treated Sgt. Allmon last year and this year for “major depressive disorder, single episode, moderate to severe; post traumatic stress disorder; anxiety disorder and sleep issues.”
The letter said it ended care on orders from the medical staff at Minot.
The letter, written by the clinic’s nurse practitioner, said the Air Force criminal investigation had isolated Sgt. Allmon professionally and socially. This, she said, “are risk factors for exacerbation of depression, PTSD, and anxiety, which could ultimately lead to self-harm or suicide. Aaron Allmon suffers from all three of these conditions.”
Mr. Broderick said the Minot personnel treated Sgt. Allmon as a malingerer. They resisted the PTSD diagnosis for fear of turning him into a sympathetic figure. He decided in July to take the sergeant to the San Antonio Military Medical Center to seek mental health care.
While there, with Sgt. Allmon having difficulty walking, Mr. Broderick went to the emergency room and pressed Army doctors to admit him for emergency back surgery. It worked. He said Minot officials immediately tried to get him back.
“They wanted to claw him back there and court-martial him,” he said.
“What I feel happened is there was a concentrated effort by senior Air Force leaders who were determined to keep him at Minot at all times, even at the expense of his medical care, and make sure he was not classified as a wounded warrior,” Mr. Broderick said, “to essentially keep him on lockdown.”
He said Army doctors stood firm, and Minot backed off. Sgt. Allmon had his second back surgery, to widen the spinal canal, on Aug. 13 and is now recuperating at his sister’s home. His medical chart shows he has chronic cauda equina, which damages nerves and disrupts bladder function and lower-extremity movement.
Asked about Mr. Broderick’s story, Maj. Humphries, the Minot spokesman, said, “All personnel at Minot AFB are provided the highest-quality medical treatment according to their medical needs. If specific medical treatment is not available in the local area, the USAF sends patients to the locations where health care is available. I’ve seen this routinely occur since my arrival in May.”
By the time Sgt. Allmon reached the emergency room in San Antonio, Ms. Roper said, “He learned that he was only evacuating 10 percent of his bladder and had not had a full evacuation in months. This was all related to the pressure on his bladder from the crushed disk and nerves in his spine.”
She provided the hospital’s notes about her brother’s care in San Antonio. One entry said that a doctor at Minot told the hospital not to perform surgery and to send him back to the air base.
“He is just starting to get feeling back in his feet,” Ms. Roper said.
With the court-marital set to begin Monday, one charge is not “he said, she said.” Sgt. Allmon told an Office of Special Investigations agent that he did not have his cellphone with him. A few hours later, he corrected the lie and handed it over during the same interview session. He could be convicted of lying to the investigator.
Ms. Roper said he did not want to turn over nude photos of his wife. She said a forensic examination of his phone revealed no text messages or emails between him and his accusers.