Decisions: Airmen choose Article 15 as wakeup call

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Lance Smith
  • 35th Fighter Wing Judge Advocate General
Over the course of my career, I have been involved in the processing of hundreds of Articles 15. As a Judge Advocate General in the base legal office, I evaluate evidence and consult with commanders in offering Articles 15. As a Defense Counsel, I helped former clients respond to Articles 15 in writing, and in some cases, appeared before commanders to plead my client's case in person. In all of these, for better or worse, a life was changed, and the Article 15 accomplished its purpose.

An Article 15, or nonjudicial punishment, is a unique tool available to military commanders, which has no real equivalent in the civilian world. If an employee at a grocery store off base, say Piggy Wiggly, for example, makes a mistake on the job, shows up late for a shift, mouths off to a supervisor, or refuses to do an assigned task, the employee may be "written up." If an Airman does any of those things, he or she receive an administrative action.

If the Piggly Wiggly employee refuses to change his or her behavior, he or she should expect to be fired. The Airman should expect to face an administrative discharge.

Now let us assume instead of engaging in low-level misconduct, the Piggly Wiggly employee commits a serious crime, say embezzling funds from the store, or committing a violent crime against another person. The employee would likely be arrested, prosecuted by local authorities and, if found guilty, sentenced to jail or other punishment. Similarly, an Airman who commits one or more serious crimes could face trial by court-martial with the possibility of similar punishments.

The Article 15 process in the Air Force fills the gap between these two extremes. It is designed to deal with minor offenses, and is a disciplinary measure more serious than the administrative action, but less serious than a trial by court-martial. An Airman punished under Article 15 may be, among other things: required to forfeit some amount of pay; reduced in rank; ordered to do extra duty; or, ordered restricted to limits of defined area (usually the base). The manager at Piggly Wiggly does not have these options.

This process is a valuable tool to commanders because it provides an essential and prompt means of maintaining good order and discipline and promotes positive behavioral changes in service members without the stigma of a court-martial conviction.

When do we typically see a commander wield the Article 15 tool? First, when the Airman's unit leadership has exhausted all other available administrative tools and the efforts have failed to reform the Airman's behavior. In a case like this, an Airman may have a handful of Letters of Counseling, Admonishment and Reprimand. In this case, the new offense alone may not seem to be serious enough to warrant an Article 15, but the continuous nature of the misconduct does.

Second, when an Airman engages in what may be his or her first offense but where the severity of the offense demands a more elevated response from command. Examples of this could be an Airman who: drove under the influence of alcohol; improperly used his or her government travel card; who committed assault and battery; or, failed to follow an order or regulation.

Whatever the case, the commander offers an Article 15 in an effort to maintain good order and discipline in the unit. In other words, punishing an Airman to correct his or her behavior, while at the same time sending a general message of deterrence to the other members of the unit who know, or who have heard about the Airman's misconduct. The decision to offer an Article 15 is the commander's as is any subsequent discharge decision; what the Airman does following the Article 15, however, is completely up to them. As mentioned above, Articles 15 also promote positive behavioral changes.

I end where I started. I have sat in consultations with many commanders, none of which took the decision to offer an Article 15 lightly. Each commander knew the Article 15 would change the Airman's life one way or another. After receiving an Article 15, I witnessed some Airmen's lives change for the worse as they got discouraged, stopped caring and some even gave up. Others, however, took the Article 15 as a wakeup call and allowed the process to change their lives for the better. Those Airmen showed positive attitudes, recognized the need to improve their behavior and moved onward and upward in their careers. Whether the Article 15 was the last step in moving out a problem Airman, or providing the needed motivation to get back on track for another, in each case, the Article 15 accomplished its purpose.