The Navy officer whose family and friends mounted a successful, if controversial, campaign to get him out of Japanese prison after his 2021 car accident left two dead are now outraged at what they say is another injustice -- his denied promotion.
On May 29, 2021, Lt. Ridge Alkonis was behind the wheel of a family minivan returning from Mount Fuji when, in a moment of unconsciousness, he swerved off the road into a noodle shop and crushed two Japanese nationals -- an 85-year-old woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law.
Since then, there was a guilty plea; a stint in Japanese jail for Alkonis; an early return to U.S. custody; and, on Jan. 12, his parole and release -- all amid a family campaign that featured numerous editorials, TV appearances and presidential lobbying. Shortly after that, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro decided not to promote the now-freed Alkonis, who was set to become a lieutenant commander before the accident in 2021.
"I reached this decision after a complete review of the facts and circumstances surrounding his case, to include forwarding this matter to a Special Selection Review Board," Del Toro, who is the Navy's top civilian official, said in a statement provided to Military.com.
The reaction from Alkonis' supporters was swift. Andrew Eubanks, a Naval Academy classmate of Alkonis and one of his most ardent supporters on social media, said in a Jan. 19 post that it was "apparent" that Del Toro and the commander of the Navy's forces in Japan "have abused their power by using personal political prejudices to punish Alkonis for unwanted media attention around the Alkonis case."
Navy officials, meanwhile, have noted that Alkonis simply went through a process that any officer who is being considered for promotion while also having a criminal incident would encounter.
Military.com reached out to Alkonis' supporters and spoke with several individuals advocating on his behalf, including spokesman Jonathan Franks. Their argument begins with the idea that Alkonis was a promising officer in the Navy who had the support of his superiors throughout the trial.
In a series of posts made in July 2022, Eubanks posted a selection of Alkonis' fitness reports that describe him in glowing and effusive terms.
"A future afloat commanding officer," one evaluation boasted. "My #1 of 28 highly competitive [lieutenants]!" another evaluation proclaimed.
In documents reviewed by Military.com, following the incident, Alkonis' commander aboard the USS Benfold argued that "this incident does not warrant promotion delay or removal, and Lt. Alkonis should be allowed to promote as soon as possible."
The support appears to have continued up the chain of command to the Navy's commander of the Japan-based 7th Fleet, where Vice Adm. Karl Thomas also noted in a document that he strongly concurred with the Benfold commander and argued that the U.S. had "a strong interest in ameliorating the negative effect on Lt. Alkonis and his family of this foreign criminal conviction."
"Lt. Alkonis was even selected for an early promotion, but that promotion was withheld as one of the administrative consequences resulting from this accident," Thomas said. "Extraordinary circumstances warrant this exception to policy."
On their face, the documents buttress the idea that, as Franks puts it, "as of the day he checked into prison ... the Navy had thrown him completely overboard."
However, long-serving sailors who spoke with Military.com for this story noted that the Navy also has a tradition of writing evaluations and official documents that not only eschew negative remarks but often hew to over-the-top praise and puffery.
A 2022 research paper by two students at the Naval Postgraduate School noted that in conversations with sailors, many "complained about 'fluff', 'hyper inflation' and lack of honesty" in evaluation write-ups.
Another noted that "there is a culture of fear of ending a sailor's career if there's any non-positive element in the evaluations."
One sailor told the authors that "such a culture of inflated, but coded evaluations, does not serve candidates, promotion boards or the Navy."
As a result of that culture, it's also unlikely that either the Benfold's commander or Thomas would write recommendations that were negative of Alkonis once he became accused of being responsible for the deaths of two Japanese citizens.
However, it also means that it is hard to know whether any of the documents cited by supporters are a genuine assessment of Alkonis' value and skills or simply the result of a tradition of strong public support but differing, private opinions.
Alkonis' wife, Brittany, who was the face of the massive push to have her husband freed from Japanese prison, argued in a social media post last week that Alkonis is now "being punished for MY advocacy and nothing more."
Eubanks, Alkonis' Naval Academy classmate, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, made similar allegations online, citing an excerpt of a document they say is from the commander of Navy forces in Japan, Rear Adm. Carl Lahti.
In the excerpt, Lahti allegedly notes that Alkonis' case has "divided a portion of the Navy community in Yokosuka, and is a matter of wide discussion on multiple social media platforms both in and out of Japan." He goes on to say that some believe justice was served and others feel Alkonis was unlawfully imprisoned.
In the online excerpt, Lahti does not make a recommendation on how Alkonis' promotion should be handled.
What is clear from Navy statements, however, is that the question of Alkonis' promotion went through a preexisting process to adjudicate the question of his promotion.
Del Toro's statement noted that he put the question to a Special Selection Review Board -- a group of uniformed members convened to review all but the most senior promotions when the person in question becomes "the subject of credible information of an adverse nature," according to the law. The statement does not say what the board recommended to Del Toro, but Alkonis was able to submit a statement for the proceeding.
Navy officials also said that he will have another opportunity to be selected for promotion to lieutenant commander this year. At the moment, Alkonis is assigned to Naval Personnel Command.
Alkonis' team says that they're thinking about what to do next and considering challenging the decision -- all in the name of Alkonis' rights and the rights of other service members in countries such as Japan where treaties and agreements give power to local authorities to treat service members in accordance with local laws.
They already have support from a congressman who helped advocate for Alkonis' release -- Rep. Nick LaLota, R-N.Y.
In a statement following Alkonis' release from U.S. prison, LaLota argued that "going forward, we must ensure our service members abroad have the same legal protections as they do at home."
However, LaLota didn't articulate the scope of the issue he is pushing to legislate.
As for Alkonis, Franks said that he “is enjoying being back with his family and looking forward to resuming service to his country.”