The Air Force preaches ‘zero tolerance’ of sexual assault. So why is it retaining an airman guilty of it?
“I will never have the audacity to utter the words ‘accountability’ to my troops again.”
The Air Force has decided to retain Master Sgt. Jeremy M. Zier, a public affairs airman who was convicted of abusive sexual contact and dereliction of duty in August, despite the service’s supposed “zero tolerance” stance on sexual assault and harassment outlined in official reports, statements and policy guidelines.
“The United States Air Force maintains the position that sexual assault is a crime in stark opposition to our core values and our culture of dignity and respect,” the service wrote in a report showing it had the biggest increase in sexual assaults across any service in 2019.
So why then was Zier retained? The airman he assaulted and a former Air Force judge point to problems in the military justice system that make it easier for commanders to close ranks around favored airmen, such as Zier, and protect them from punishment.
“The standard of ‘zero tolerance’ is a slap in the face when it comes from an organization that claims to care about integrity, yet retaliates against survivors who speak their truth,” Staff Sgt. Cambria Ferguson, who testified that Zier sexually assaulted her while both were stationed at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey in 2015, told Task & Purpose. “We are not safe, we are not a priority, and we are not being heard.”
Ferguson was just an airman first class at her first duty station when she, Zier and several other airmen took an office trip to a spa in Pamukkale, Turkey, as she told the San Antonio Express-News. One night, Zier tried several times to put his hand on Ferguson’s inner thigh, and finally touched her genitals, while they were in the hot tub in swimsuits along with several other junior airmen and two noncommissioned officers from her office.
Ferguson left the tub upset before Zier followed her through a courtyard “and then ended up pulling off my swimsuit top,” she told the Express-News. The young airman went back to her room, while Zier returned to the hot tub and took off his swim trunks, as several male and female subordinate airmen recalled at trial, a separate offense that the jury considered to be a dereliction of duty.
“I didn’t even know the nudity thing in the hot tub ended up happening, I guess later on,” Ferguson said. “They kept drinking and hanging out, and eventually Zier took his swim trunks off and then was encouraging them to take off all their swimsuits.”
A combat broadcast journalist assigned to Joint Base Charleston, S.C., Ferguson told the Express-News that Zier had a habit of saying sexually inappropriate things to airmen. She said she received particularly specific questions because she had recently come out as bisexual.
“He would try to ask me what it’s like when two females had intercourse, what it feels like, what I like done to me, just a lot of questions relating to that,” she said. “It was always sexual in nature, and that was not only the trend with myself but other females in the office.”
Despite having a successful career and moving up through the ranks since the assault in Turkey, Ferguson said the incident has stuck with her every day.
“It wasn’t a moment or a brief chapter, it was an awakening that permeates my perception of the Air Force every day I put on the uniform,” she wrote on her personal blog. “I lost sleep then and I lose sleep now (as an NCO) knowing leaders can act this way because of the perception that their middle and lower ranks will turn a blind eye.”
Zier was convicted of abusive sexual contact and dereliction of duty in August 2020. In that same trial, the jury found Zier not guilty of two other sexual abuse charges with different women in Charleston, S.C. and in San Antonio, Texas in 2019. In both incidents, the women alleged that he touched their buttocks, the San Antonio Express-News reported in August.
As a convicted sex offender, Zier could have received one year in jail, six months’ forfeiture of pay and allowances, three months’ hard labor and reduction in rank to airman basic, the Express-News reported.
Instead, he was reduced one rank from senior master sergeant to master sergeant, received no jail time, and faced a mandatory discharge proceeding. The discharge board decided to retain Zier in December, several sources told Task & Purpose.
“I am confident to say that in 2021, there is not another institution in this country that would allow somebody who was convicted of sexually assaulting a subordinate coworker to continue working there,” said retired Col. Don Christensen, the former chief prosecutor of the Air Force. “Congratulations to the Air Force, you can be proud of this one.”
Nevertheless, Joint Base San Antonio officials claim that the discharge proceeding is not finished. Publicizing the discharge board’s decision may take several more months since the board’s transcript must be reviewed for accuracy at multiple levels, said Angelina M. Casarez, acting director for public affairs for JBSA and the 502nd Air Base Wing.
‘Commanders shouldn’t be making these decisions’
Ferguson told Task & Purpose that she felt that her senior leaders rallied around Zier at the court-martial. More than 25 airmen provided character references and written statements in support of him without seeming to have any awareness of the charges levelled against him or any account from his victims, she said.
“Some shared positive work experiences, others reminisced about golfing trips — as if that’s somehow appropriate or relevant to a sexual assault case,” Ferguson said. “These ‘leaders’ championed ‘his side of the story,’ one he refused to share any time he was under oath.”
Ferguson listed her own credentials: winner of the Commandant Award for contributions to her Airman Leadership School class; two-time Air Combat Command videographer of the year; junior enlisted service member of the year; and operations manager at the rank of senior airman. Several of the leaders who testified on behalf of Zier were aware of Ferguson’s accomplishments, and yet they discounted her testimony anyway, she said.
That’s because, in the court chambers, Ferguson’s accomplishments could not compare with Zier’s own impressive record and network of supporters. With nearly 24 years in the service, Zier is the manager for the Air Force Public Affairs Flying Program, and his decorations include a Joint Service Commendation Medal and a Bronze Star.
“Dozens and dozens of documents were put in a portfolio to humanize my offender, but I was just a survivor with one experience to be shared with strangers and then dismissed,” the airman said. “There was no opportunity to present my own identity, character or credibility.”
The decision to retain Zier was not a surprise to Christensen, who argued that the case is yet another example of dysfunction in the military justice system. The Uniform Code of Military Justice gives unit commanders the power to prefer charges against defendants and refuse a discharge board’s recommendation to discharge the service member, he said. That’s a problem when the commander is chummy with the defendant.
“The conclusion I reach is that [Zier] must have substantial support from his command,” said the former lawyer, who now is president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for sexual assault victims. “You’re in a tough position [as a commander]: you like the guy, you think he’s a good guy, but you’re his commander and this is why commanders shouldn’t be making these decisions.”
That conflict of interest “flies in the face of the generals and admirals who constantly say that commanders are all in [with fighting sexual harassment and assault],’” Christensen added. “No they’re not, this is not an unusual event where the chain of command supports somebody who’s being prosecuted. It happens quite frequently.”
Ferguson said she saw this play out in real-time at Zier’s court-martial. She mentioned that service members serving on the panel, the court-martial equivalent of a jury, are compelled to side with their higher-ranking commanders and supervisors.
“I cannot imagine how nerve-racking it must be as a panel member to see multiple alleged victims sit across from you — and then you look down to see the dozens of high-ranking names on the papers before you,” she said. “I do not envy their situation. The military judicial process is not set up to provide a balanced view of the offender versus the survivor.”
On top of that, sentencing in a court-martial is not done by a judge, as it is in a civilian court. Instead, it is carried out by those same service members picked to serve on the panel.
“It is not easy to sentence someone, even as a judge,” Christensen said. “As a court member who’s never done it, it is extremely difficult. A lot of the information that is available to a federal judge is not available to court members when they sentence. There have been no guidelines on what an appropriate sentence is. They don’t really understand the impact of any particular sentence. They’re wholly unqualified to be making a sentencing decision, but the military, in particular the Air Force, has clung to this idea that sentencing should be done by members so they can get a sense of the community [of the accused].”
The consequence of this, Ferguson said, is that it devalues and disparages the experiences of airmen who have been sexually harassed or assaulted.
“It is incredibly difficult to reconcile the idea that people I share a uniform with look at a registered sex offender and think: ‘good enough,’ she said. “I will never have the audacity to utter the word ‘accountability’ to my troops again.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story read that commanders have the ability to overturn a conviction. Though at one point that was true, commanders’ ability to do so has been curtailed since 2014, after an Air Force general overturned a fighter pilot’s conviction for rape, assault and battery.
Related: The major flaws in the Air Force justice system that let generals go unpunished