Nellis major pleads guilty to assault after inappropriately touching airman

A military judge on Tuesday ordered a Nellis Air Force Base major to forfeit $3,678 in pay and allowances for one month after he pleaded guilty to two of three charges in what began as a sex abuse court-martial involving an enlisted man.

Maj. Charles Cox Jr., a nurse in the 99th Medical Operations Squadron at Nellis, had pleaded not guilty to all three charges when the trial began in October. The charges included a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for touching the buttocks and anus of an airman “with intent to arouse or gratify his own sexual desire” while the man was asleep at an off-base house in Las Vegas on Aug. 4, 2012.

The judge, Lt. Col. Christopher Schumann, dismissed that charge at the request of the prosecutors after Cox agreed to plead guilty to assault for touching the 22-year-old airman’s back and buttocks with his hand. Cox, who was 42 at the time, also pleaded guilty to conduct unbecoming of an officer for being drunk and disorderly on Aug. 3, 2012, in the presence of enlisted airmen and making inappropriate comments to women in the Air Force.

Five officers chosen to serve as jurors before the court-martial was recessed on Oct. 18 were released as part of the pre-trial agreement. Cox agreed instead to be tried and sentenced by a military judge alone.

The court-martial came at a time of heightened awareness about sexual assault in the military amid a campaign by victims’ advocates to hold the accused and their commanders accountable, and prevent verdicts against officers from being overturned by their high-ranking superiors.

Before the charges against Cox were reduced, the case was one of the first involving sexual assault in the military to go to trial this year as the Pentagon plans to spend $157 million on sexual assault prevention programs and $25 million to expand a victims’ counsel program for military personnel in rape and sexual assault cases.

Cox, who is married with two children, acknowledged that he had unlawfully touched the airman without his consent while the airman slept. The encounter occurred after Cox entered the airman’s bedroom following a night of drinking that started at a golf course, continued at another officer’s house and ended up at the airman’s house where they played “beer pong” with others.

The airman, who worked in the same squadron as Cox but has since left the active duty Air Force, said he and other enlisted airmen had tried to give Cox a ride home because he was “inebriated, definitely in no shape to drive home.”

But when they reached Cox’s house, “He didn’t want to go inside. He said he was too drunk and his wife was going to kill him.”

Instead of taking him to a nearby casino, as Cox had requested, they took him to the victim’s house. “We really thought we were looking out for his best interest,” the former Nellis airman said.

Cox apologized for his actions that night. He said he couldn’t remember everything but believed the touching incident had happened.

“I was in denial for a significant amount of time,” Cox said Tuesday. “I believe I did it and have to take responsibility for it.”

The former senior airman who was the victim said he was “in a state of shock” after he woke up that night and glanced to the right and saw Cox’s face and felt his hand moving slowly down his back. “I was embarrassed and scared. It was a completely uneasy feeling.”

He said he felt violated and continues to grapple with the invasion of his privacy. “I could no longer look up to the expectations of the Air Force. …It’s taken a huge toll on my life.”

Cox was described by his commanding officer, Col. Howard Reid, as the one who was chosen out of 200 other nurses to get the base hospital’s cardiac catheter laboratory certified and running.

Under questioning by Maj. Jeremy McKissack, the senior defense counsel, Cox revealed that he had been sexually assaulted during his childhood and moved away from his parents when he was 13 to live with a family that adopted him.

“I decided I didn’t want to have anything to do with Mom and my step-dad,” Cox said.

He went on to pursue a nursing career through college and in the Army but was released from the Army as a second lieutenant during a force reduction in the mid-1990s. After 11 months working in the private sector, he joined the Air Force for what became a 16-year career that included four overseas tours in support of combat operations, including his last one in Afghanistan to care for foreign nationals.

For that and to give Cox a second chance, McKissack asked Schumann for “a reasonable sentence, a sentence of no punishment.”

In contrast, trial counsel Capt. Blaine Nicholson sought 180 days in confinement, forfeiture of pay while in jail and a $12,000 fine.

“His behavior throughout the night was a disgrace,” Nicholson said. “He jumped in a pool with his clothes on. He was more concerned about what his wife would think than being an officer. … (He) got so out of control he made a mockery out of being an officer and assaulted an enlisted man.”

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Follow him on Twitter @KeithRogers2.