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For those trying to help a Latter-day Saint Navy officer imprisoned in Japan, Tuesday night’s State of the Union Address was an exhilarating beacon of hope.

They learned firsthand that President Joe Biden knows Lt. Ridge Alkonis by name.

The startling case of Ridge Alkonis

“I promise you, we’re not giving up, OK?” Biden told the officer’s wife, Brittany Alkonis, on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives after the president delivered his second State of the Union address.

“My kids are counting on you,” Brittany said in a video that captured the interaction.

Brittany Alkonis and the couple’s three young children protested outside the White House for two months this fall, begging for Biden’s attention. To have his personal attention for a few moments was inspiring, said Andrew Eubanks, who manages the campaign to bring home Lt. Alkonis.

Eubanks shared the backstory of how Biden and Brittany Alkonis found each other on the House floor and what they said.

Ridge Alkonis was convicted by a Japanese court of negligent driving in the May 2021 deaths of two pedestrians, an 85-year-old Japanese woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law. The judge ruled he fell asleep at the wheel, but U.S. Navy investigators said Alkonis lost consciousness because he suffered from acute mountain sickness.

The U.S. Navy and many American leaders believe Alkonis is serving an unfair three-year sentence in Japan, where the expert Navy sonarman works sewing in the prison laundry.

The Alkonis family paid a record $1.65 million in restitution to the Japanese family raised from insurance, family and friends. Such an apology, known as gomenasai, is customary in Japan. Gomenasai regularly leads to suspended sentences in Japan, but it did not in Alkonis’ case.

Brittany Alkonis met with Vice President Kamala Harris this fall, as well as U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. But she had not been able to talk to Biden.

Ridge and Brittany Alkonis.
Ridge and Brittany Alkonis. | Alkonis family photo

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, invited Brittany Alkonis and Eubanks to the State of the Union address. They used the opportunity to talk to more Congress members.

After Biden spoke, they walked down from the gallery to the floor to do more networking, and Eubanks noticed Biden headed his way.

“I kind of positioned myself in a good spot and he came over. I shook his hand,” Eubanks said.

Biden looked the pin on Eubanks’ suit, which said, “Bring Ridge Home,” and Eubanks told him he was at the State of the Union for Lt. Ridge Alkonis in Japan.

“He started shaking his head that, yes, he knew who that was,” Eubanks said. “I said his wife, Brittany, is here. He’s like, ‘Where is she? Bring her over.’ Brittany pushed through the crowd and then the president just started engaging with her, speaking with her giving her a hug and everything.”

Eubanks described the meeting as emotional.

“He immediately hugged her and just kept hugging her and telling her, ‘We’re not giving up on this and we’re gonna get it done.’ He’s well aware of the situation, so there wasn’t really a whole lot that needed to be said. It was really emotional for Brittany. She was crying and he was just hugging her and just telling her, ‘We’re going to get it done.’”

Eubanks said the president offered to have them visit him in the White House.

“We hooked up with his staff and gave them our information, and we look forward to to that at some point as well,” Eubanks said.

He said the Biden administration is working on a solution with the Japanese government to transfer Alkonis to the United States.

“There are legal and acceptable ways to do that that have been utilized between both countries in the past,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting both parties to agree on that. We hope that the president and his administration and Congress and what they have done and will continue to do to engage the Japanese government will be make that happen sooner rather than later.”

Alkonis has no phone or computer privileges. He can send seven, one-page handwritten letters per month, and his wife has been allowed two 30-minute visits a month. This month, that expands to five 30-minute visits.

Brittany Alkonis feared she would have to move back to the United States because the Navy informed the family that it would suspend Lt. Alkonis’ pay and benefits on Dec. 28. But Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee attached language to the federal budget omnibus bill that required the Navy to continue to pay Alkonis.

Lee also has demanded that Japan return Alkonis to the United States by Feb. 28.

Right now, the Alkonis family and friends are rejoicing that the president is aware of them and says he will work to bring Alkonis home.

“The family, myself, a couple other key people, we’re constantly talking, daily — usually hourly — texting, calling, emailing,” said Eubanks. “‘What’s going on here? Who are we talking to? What’s happening in the media? What’s happening on social media? Who’s visiting who? What government meetings are happening?’ We’re constantly monitoring this, looking for opportunities where we can raise awareness of our situation and hopefully try and make some kind of impact and get closer to our goal of bringing Ridge home.

“Every time we have a big event, or media story or a key leader engagement, it’s like this exhilarating adrenaline rush of fulfillment that we’ve accomplished something because we’re not professionals at this. We’re not wealthy individuals. We’re just normal, middle-class American folks. We still have full-time jobs and everything else, families, so our free time is just poured into this this campaign, this fight for justice. There’s occasional highs and there’s a lot of lows, so really, it’s about banding together, keeping the faith, maintaining hope that this is going to work out.”

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Behind the scenes

The tickets used by Brittany Alkonis and Andrew Eubanks to attend President Joe Biden’s State of the Union on Feb. 7, 2023.
The tickets used by Brittany Alkonis and Andrew Eubanks, who is helping her work for the return from Japan of her imprisoned husband, Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis, to attend President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. | Andrew Eubanks
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