Discharge board requires thought, responsibility

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Michael Laughton
  • 459th Air Refueling Wing
Recently, I answered the call for volunteers to sit on various discharge boards. I figured, "What the heck, anyone can sit and listen and make a decision ... I'm perfect!" 

I was told where to report and to be prepared for up to two days of sitting and listening. I was also given homework -- about 100 pages of Air Force law regulations to read beforehand. 

I felt slight apprehension once I realized I was accepted. Instead of just escaping my desk for a few days and visiting Warner-Robins Air Force Base, Ga., again, it started sinking in that some Airman's fate was to rest in my hands and that of two strangers. I started taking my homework seriously. 

As I read, I learned all kinds of good stuff. Involuntary confessions are inadmissible. All evidence obtained through search and seizure is allowed. 

Airmen facing discharge for homosexual conduct are automatically offered a board. Noncommissioned officers are automatically offered a board. Polygraph results are inadmissible unless both parties agree. 

Oaths will be taken and sworn, and preponderance of evidence is the way the board will reach a conclusion. What is preponderance of evidence? I think it means listen, take it all in, and follow your gut ... 

The board consisted of three Reserve officers: a colonel, a major and me. The case before us concerned an NCO who missed 13 consecutive drill periods in four months. The regulation states missing nine periods in one year is grounds for discharge. 

At the beginning of the board, it is explained that while court martial jury members give a verdict based what can be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt," we board members will just consider a preponderance of evidence. 

We're told that this is just a bit less strenuous than "beyond a reasonable doubt." We listen to both sides, "trust our gut" and provide a recommendation to the Numbered Air Force commander, who'll make the final decision. 

The NCO, who during the hearing gives an un-sworn statement over the phone, argues that one of the drills should have been excused. Since the NCO's statement is un-sworn, we're not allowed to cross-examine. I cannot ask the NCO to clarify or elaborate any statements. That's frustrating because I'm asking the witnesses a lot of questions, trying to understand what really went on here. 

Based on what the NCO says, let's say we allow that one unexcused absence, that still leaves 12 others to worry about. 

Apparently, the NCO belonged to a really slack unit, where servicemembers supposedly showed up to drill in civilian attire, watched television all day, then went home.
A new commander and superintendent took over and tried to reform the unit. 

The commander called the NCO and suggested they meet and talk about the absences, but the NCO didn't show for the appointment. All letters mailed to the NCO were unanswered. 

When both sides finished presenting their evidence, we were handed a checklist to guide us in determining if the NCO did indeed miss enough drills to be discharged.
It also asks us to consider "probation and rehabilitation," a last chance, of sorts, where the Airman is kept in the service, but if he or she even shows up even one minute late for an appointment they could be automatically discharged. 

The checklist guides us in choosing the exact words we use in announcing our recommendation. 

We board members are excused and we go off to sit in a little room and make our decisions. It took all day to present facts and 20 minutes to reach a recommendation.
I won't tell you how I or the others voted, but I will tell you what I learned from my first discharge board. 

It really seemed fair, and a lot of effort went into it. This was no "slam-dunk." I know I waited to hear both sides before I made a decision, and I firmly believe my fellow board members did the same. 

What will become of the NCO? I don't know. The NCO was offered several chances to come back to the unit, but ignored them. 

I already knew there are many good active duty Airmen wanting to join the Reserve. I also know that every military unit accomplishes its mission through teamwork, and when teammates are constantly missing, that makes a hard job harder. 

Discharge boards are interesting. I strongly suggest that if you're eligible, volunteer and sign up when the call goes out.