Sen. Mike Lee called out Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for cutting off the pay of Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis while he serves a three-year prison sentence in Japan.
“Secretary Austin callously informed me that day that the request for the exception to policy would not be granted. I asked him why. He believed it wasn’t appropriate for the department to do that,” the Utah Republican said last week in a Senate floor speech, referring to a Nov. 29 phone call with the secretary.
The Department of Defense’s decision to not extend Alkonis’ pay and benefits while he serves his sentence amounts to having his wife, Brittany, and three children “kicked to the curb” at Christmas time, Lee said.
Lee has blasted the military in a string of tweets on his personal account @BasedMikeLee over the past few days.
“@SecDef, please don’t stop paying Lt. Ridge Alkonis. You shouldn’t be hanging him and his family out to dry ten days from now,” he said.
Alkonis was convicted of negligent driving in the deaths of an 85-year-old Japanese woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law on May 29, 2021, while the family was driving down Mount Fuji after a day trip.
A Japanese judge determined that Alkonis had fallen asleep at the wheel and lost control of his vehicle, which plowed into pedestrians and parked cars in a restaurant parking lot two hours from Yokosuka Naval Base, where he was serving as anti-submarine warfare officer.
But U.S. Navy investigators determined that Alkonis suffered from acute mountain sickness and lost consciousness. His wife and children said that he was not sleepy and appeared to black out. They said that once he passed out, he was unresponsive to their screams and one daughter’s kicks. He remained unconscious even during the crash itself.
“Did he steal something? Did he harm someone? No. None of the above,” Lee said in the 23-minute speech. “This was not a criminal act. This was a medical emergency, one that resulted in a tragedy and I’m so sad that it did.”
Lee acknowledged Japanese law differs from U.S. law and said he’s not talking about how Japan handled the situation, but how the U.S. military is handling it.
Military members who are absent without leave or over leave forfeit their pay for the period of the absence unless it is excused as unavoidable, Lee said, quoting U.S. law.
“Seems to me that if ever there were an instance perfectly tailored for this statute or an absence that need to be excused as unavoidable it’s that of Lt. Ridge Alkonis,” he said.
Alkonis, who has been in prison since July, filed the paperwork for an exception months ago. Lee said the request languished in the Defense Department and it has yet to formally or publicly announce its denial.
“The fact that they won’t excuse as unavoidable Lt. Alkonis’ absence is itself inexcusable, he said.
Defense spokesperson Maj. Charlie Dietz responded to the case in a statement to Fox News Digital.
“Secretary Austin informed the Secretary of the Navy that after careful consideration and consultation he denied the exception to policy for LT Ridge Alkonis,” Dietz said. “Current DoD policy mandates that such absences may not be excused as unavoidable if a member is confined by civil authorities after having been tried and convicted of a crime and, if there is an appeal, the conviction is affirmed.
“Following a thorough review of the facts of the case, Secretary Austin concurred with the recommendation of the Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness against granting an exception to policy, since it would be contrary to military custom and practice.”
In a tweet, Lee said Austin has the authority to grant an exception under the law. “There is not a plausible reading of that statute that would suggest otherwise,” he said.
Alkonis has relied on accumulated leave for income but that runs out before the end of December.
“In 13 days our pay and benefits will be turned off, I won’t be able to support our children or Ridge, and I clearly won’t be able to count on the @USNavy to do so either,” Brittany Alkonis tweeted on Dec. 15.
Brittany Alkonis and her children could return to the United States but that would mean never seeing their husband or father, Lee said. Also, he said Japanese law would not allow them to talk on the phone.
I’m struggling to find the words right now. @SenMikeLee if you don’t mind I’m going to borrow a few of yours: Inexcusable. Reprehensible. Disgraceful. These aren’t just for #LtRidgeAlkonis @SecDef they’re for every military family. INEXCUSABLE. REPREHENSIBLE. DISGRACEFUL.— Brittany Alkonis (@BrittanyAlkonis) December 16, 2022
Lee said Alkonis was in Japan only because the military sent him there, and that he served faithfully. The Defense Department reached the wrong conclusion about his pay and did it in the wrong way, he said.
“This is not a way to treat those who stand in harm’s way so that we can live and be safe and be free. This isn’t a way to treat anyone. None of us would treat our employees that way,” he said.
Lee said as he shared Alkonis’ story with Republican and Democratic colleagues in the Senate and House all of them called it a “no brainer.” He said he intends to draft legislation to change the law.
On Monday, Lee tweeted that if the Defense Department is unwilling or unable to take action on getting Alkonis released from prison, President Joe Biden should transfer the case to the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
To qualify for action by the agency, Alkonis would need to be deemed wrongfully detained under U.S. law. Though he doesn’t qualify under that strict legal definition, the president “could — and should — direct” the special envoy to lead the effort to get Alkonis released in Japan, Lee said.
“After working on this for 18 months, I have received this input from multiple, reliable sources with inside knowledge: DoD is actively discouraging any aggressive action by State or the WH to get Japan to release Alkonis. That interference must end NOW. Put @StateSPEHA on it!” Lee tweeted.
Further, he said the Defense Department should pay Alkonis while Ambassador Roger Carstens negotiates his release “without interference from @SecDef or anyone at DoD. @POTUS and @StateSPEHA can make this happen!”
4/4— Mike Lee (@BasedMikeLee) December 19, 2022
DoD should immediately agree to pay Lt. Alkonis (restoring his promotion and all leave acquired pre-confinement), and then allow Ambassador Carstens to negotiate his speedy return—without interference from @secdef or anyone at DoD. @potus and @StateSPEHA can make this happen!