A study ordered in a Defense Department funding bill will look at the possibility of giving transitional benefits to the spouses of troops who are convicted of crimes under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice and then discharged from the military.
The order for the study, which will be completed by the Defense Department in early May, was included in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act following the lobbying efforts of a now-divorced military spouse who turned her husband in for his crimes even though it meant she would likely lose all pay and benefits as a result.
"I knew full well the risks I was taking when I turned [Retired Lt. Col. Jim Johnson] in for his wrong doing, but I knew I was the only one that could do it. People saw blatant misconduct but nobody said anything. I was prepared mentally for losing my benefits," said Kris Johnson.
Her husband, former commander of the 173rd Aribrone Brigade Combat Team in Vicenza Italy, was charged with six USMJ violations and 27 specifications or counts, including bigamy, fraud, forgery and adultery, after an illicit affair with an Iraqi woman became public.
Jim Johnson was convicted of 15 of those counts. But in a move that shocked observers he was sentenced to a $300,000 fine and jail time only if he was unable to pay. The light sentence was thought to be out of mercy for his wife, who originally alerted authorities of his crimes. Had Johnson been sentenced to prison or his retirement denied, she would have lost all the military pay and benefits for both her and her children for which they were otherwise entitled.
"I do know that what happened with Jim's sentence is a leak in the military justice system," Kris Johnson said.
When a servicemember is convicted of a crime under UCMJ the convening authority can, depending on the crime, include in his sentence a variety of fines, prison time, separation from service and elimination of retirement benefits. Any monetary punishments for the servicemember are also felt by his spouse and family.
If the couple had been married long enough for the spouse to receive a portion of the servicemember's military retirement check even after divorce, for example, that money could also go away as a result of sentencing.
Currently, a military spouse whose servicemember is convicted of domestic violence and then divorced or separated is by law given at least 12 months and up to 3 years of military benefits including cash payments, Tricare and commissary and base recreation service access. Officials who back the newly ordered study would like to eventually see similar benefits cover some or all spouses whose servicemembers are convicted and separated from the military under UCMJ.
The study will examine the "appropriateness" of providing transitional benefits to such families; whether or not there are instances in which they would not be appropriate; how long the benefit should last; whether it should be limited to child dependents and denied spouses; and whether or not there are already other similar benefits available.
The study will also take a special look at whether such a benefit should be limited to only spouses and families of servicemembers nearing retirement, or extended to all spouses regardless of rank or years of service.
Military family lobbyists, including officials with the National Military Family Association (NMFA), said they will push for any eventual benefit to be extended to all spouses whose servicemembers are convicted of a crime and kicked out of the military, and not just those who qualify for retirement.
Data on the number of servicemembers separated yearly from the military under UCMJ was not readily available. But observers believe the number of those separated at retirement to be small, while the total over all pay grades is likely in the thousands.
"We appreciate the fact that Congress has called for a study -- we will continue to talk about it, we will await to see what comes out of the study and keep monitoring and following up on it," said Kathleen Moakler, government relations director for NMFA. "But we feel strongly that it needs to be for all families and not just those that have served for 20 years."
Johnson, who originally approached NMFA and lawmakers with the need for the benefit, said she would accept a "partial victory" even though extending the benefit to all spouses of law breaking servicemembers would be ideal. She said spouses like Kari Bales -- whose husband Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was not near retirement when he was convicted of 16 counts of murder and six counts of assault and attempted murder and then sentenced to life in prison for killed Afghan nationals -- should be given the chance to get back on their feet regardless of how long their husband had been serving.
"She has nothing to do with what he did. I just look at that and think she does deserve to have a chance to get back on her feet. She also deserves to have a transitional benefit," Johnson said.
Kari Bales declined to comment for this story.
While Johnson would not benefit from any such transitional benefit thanks to the light sentence handed her ex-husband, she has been in contact with military spouses who could.
Kimberly Henne's husband, then Sr. Master Sgt. Robert Henne, was sentenced to four years in prison and reduced in rank to E-4 in January 2013 after having inappropriate contact with one of his teenage daughter's friends. But his sentence did not include separation from service -- a move Henne believes was out of compassion for her and their family.
"I believe the judge took that into consideration because he did have 21 years of service when he was convicted so that would end up protecting us," she said.
Had there been transitional benefits available for her, the sentence may have been more harsh, she said. Spc. Henne is currently serving out his sentence at Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar, Calif.
Kimberly Henne said transitional benefits are needed for spouses of long-serving members more than others because they have been out of the workforce longer. Developing a career while a military spouse can be difficult thanks to frequent moves. The longer you are in, the harder it gets, she said.
"It's very difficult for us to have our own careers," she said. "Many choose not to have their own careers, choose to support their servicemember and children because of those constant moving … So we don't have that financial stability of staying one place. If you're not holding a job for 15 years what kind of jobs will present themselves to you after 15 years of not being employed? It's going to take a while to build back up."
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the position of National Military Family Association (NMFA) officials on giving transitional benefits to the spouses of servicemembers convicted of a crime and dismissed from service. NMFA officials instead said they would push for any eventual benefit to be extended to all spouses whose servicemembers are convicted of a crime and kicked out of the military, and not just those who qualify for retirement.