Arkansas Air Guard wing commander resigns over abortion policy, Governor says

Col. Dillon Patterson, a career drone pilot, commanded the Arkansas Air National Guard's 188th Air Wing. Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders said he resigned over abortion travel policies.
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Col. Dillon Patterson resigned as the commander of the Arkansas Air National Guard's 188th Air Wing, according to Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Air Force photo.

The commander of the Arkansas Air National Guard’s 188th Air Wing resigned late last month for what the state’s Governor said is a protest of the Pentagon policy that pays for reproductive medical expenses, which includes out-of-state travel for abortions.

According to Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office, Colonel Dillon Patterson resigned on December 18 as commander of the 188th Air Wing at Ebbing Air National Guard Base just, just outside the town of Fort Smith on the Oklahoma border.

Sanders announced Patterson’s resignation in a letter sent to President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“Col. Patterson was forced to personally choose between either continuing his command or adhering to his sincerely held religious beliefs against abortion,” Sanders wrote in a letter first reported by the conservative outlet the Daily Caller. “Because he adhered first to his faith instead of overtly political mandates, he voluntarily resigned his command. I admire Col. Patterson for having the confidence of his convictions, but regret that our nation’s military will suffer the loss of a dedicated airman, leader, and guardsman as a commander.”

The letter did not lay out the timing behind Patterson’s resignation. Patterson took command of the 188th Wing last June, about five months after the policy was put in place.

Controversial policy

The policy — which the Pentagon calls “Ensuring Access to Reproductive Health Care” — provides reimbursement to service members who must travel for reproductive care, including abortions, that is outlawed or otherwise unavailable from civilian providers near their home base (federal law prohibits nearly all abortions on military bases). The policy is viewed as aimed at service members stationed at bases in states where abortion is restricted or banned.

Arkansas was one of the first states to enforce a ban on abortion in nearly all stages of pregnancy when a so-called ‘trigger law’ went into effect in June 2022 after the overturning of Roe vs Wade.
In her letter, Sanders said the policy undermines both state governments and the religious beliefs of commanders through whom requests for leave and reimbursement would ultimately pass.

“The U.S. Department of Defense … would subvert the actions of states like Arkansas by using taxpayer dollars to fund the travel, meals, and lodging associated with out-of-state servicemember travel for procurement of an abortion procedure,” Sanders wrote. “Maybe equally as egregious, the DoD now requires that commanding officers–regardless of any sincere and deeply held religious convictions to the contrary — are forced to approve such abortion leave.”

However, Pentagon Spokesperson Sabrina Singh told Task & Purpose that commanders are not required to approve such requests directly. “The Department has a travel policy, which is in place to ensure that all of our service members – regardless of where they are stationed – have equal access to reproductive health care. Should a Commander be uncomfortable approving requests for non-covered reproductive health care, they may consult with their chain of command as to whether such requests may be referred to a higher echelon of command for approval,” Singh said.

The same Pentagon policy was at the heart of a 9-month hold by Senator Tommy Tuberville of all promotions for generals and admirals, which he lifted in December.

Colonel was early drone pilot

According to his service biography on the 188th Wing’s webpage, Patterson was one of the first Air Force pilots to spend most of their career as a pilot of drones. Patterson joined the Air Force in 2001 after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. After initial pilot training and two years flying the B-1B bomber, he switched to flying the MQ-1B Predator in 2006 just as remotely piloted aircraft were playing an ever-widening role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Along with the Predator, Patterson eventually flew the secretive RQ-170 Sentinel reconnaissance drone and spent most of the last six years of his career flying and commanding squadrons of MQ-9A Reaper drones.

The 188th Wing’s primary mission is to fly the MQ-9A drone. The base is also the host of programs that bring foreign pilots to the US to train on F-16s and F-35s.

Army Maj. Cibeles Ramirez-Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas National Guard, told Task Purpose that Patterson had resigned his position as wing commander due to “faith-based personal reasons.” Ramirez-Rodriguez did not elaborate on what those personal reasons were.

Patterson submitted his resignation on Dec. 18, after which Air Force Brig. Gen. Wes Nichols, the Arkansas Air National Guard chief of staff, took command of the wing until a permanent replacement can be found, Ramirez-Rodriguez said on Wednesday.

“Col. Patterson will remain an active member of the Arkansas Air National Guard,” Ramirez-Rodriguez said. “He has been assigned to the Arkansas Air National Guard Staff Element at Camp J. T. Robinson.”

UPDATE: 01/03/2024; this story was updated with information from Army Army Maj. Cibeles Ramirez-Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas National Guard.

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