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Nellis major faces trial Tuesday on sex abuse charges

Nellis Air Force Base officers will proceed Tuesday with prosecuting and defending one of their own for alleged sex abuse.

The case of Maj. Charles Cox comes as military leaders are cracking down sexual offenses in the wake of a surge of such cases reported by the Pentagon earlier this year.

Cox, a nurse assigned to the 99th Medical Operations Squadron at Nellis is charged with abusive sexual contact on an unconscious person, assault by battery and conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. The Air Force has made little public about the case, which was reported through the base’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator.

If Cox is convicted for abusive sexual contact he could be dismissed from duty or, in essence, dishonorably discharged, confined for seven years and required to forfeit all pay and allowances.

Christopher Mathews is a partner in the Lionel Sawyer and Collins law firm who served in the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps as chief prosecutor in the Pacific theatre and later as a judge on the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals. He said he has no direct information but speculates Cox has reached a pre-trial agreement that will expedite today’s court-martial.

“I think it’s likely, based on the way you see the chronology unfolding,” Mathews said in an interview last week.

A pre-trial agreement would put a cap on any punishment that could be imposed.

Mathews noted that an officer’s rank can’t be reduced in a court-martial.

“Officers don’t get bad conduct discharges and they don’t get dishonorable discharges. They can get dismissed,” he said. “A dismissal for all practical purposes is the same as a dishonorable discharge. It cuts off substantially all rights the individual has accrued by being in the service,” including veterans benefits and loss of all or part of pay and allowances.

The Cox case is rare because there have been no sexual assault convictions of Nellis personnel in at least five years, according to Col. Barry Cornish, commander of the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis.

In May, as Judge Advocate General officers prepared for the Cox case, top Air Force brass called the surge in military sexual assault cases a crisis traced to a lack of respect for women. A Pentagon report about an epidemic of sex assaults in the military in which the Air Force saw a 33 percent increase in reported cases, from 594 in 2011 to 792 in 2012.

Cornish vowed to change that to “a culture of respect where the issue of sexual assault in all forms becomes anathema to our ability to have an effective military.”

Mathews noted, however, that locally “you’re dealing with fairly small numbers of offenses in a fairly small community. The population of Nellis is tiny compared to the population of Las Vegas as a whole,” he said.

Nevertheless, Mathews stressed that sexual offense cases “are important cases. These are serious cases.”

“Nellis may not have another sexual offense case for another year or more,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s possible to extrapolate much meaningful information on the number of cases. “Certainly public attention to these kinds of cases has taken an upswing… we’re much more aware of them than we might have been say two or three years ago.”

That heightened awareness at Nellis recently caused another a sexual harassment and assault incident to surface – an incident where the female victim faced discharge after reporting it.

Nellis Senior Airman Ciera Bridges was recommended for discharge because of minor infractions such as tardiness, but a watchdog organization called it retaliation for accusing superiors of sexual harassment and assault. Action against her was dropped late last week after the Air Force Times included her story in an investigative series about military culture that keeps victims of rape and sexual assault from speaking up, watchdog group Protect Our Defenders said in a news release.

According to the Air Force Times, Bridges, a member of the 99th Logistics Readiness Squadron, claimed she had been harassed after arriving at the Nellis base in November 2009.

The harassment “eventually turned physical, despite repeated complaints to her chain-of-command. Instead of handling the problems, she has alleged, her superiors retaliated against her, citing Bridges for minor misconduct that culminated in January in a discharge recommendation under other-than-honorable conditions,” the Air Force Times reported.

The airman’s family sought support from Protect Our Defenders, which led to the Air Force abandoning the discharge recommendation. The organization’s news release quotes her attorney, Capt. Trae Patterson, saying, however, “the emotional scars from years of harassment and assault, as well as nearly 10 months of stress and fearing for her Air Force career along with being subjugated as an outcast, remain.”

None of the airmen in accused by Bridges face Article 32 or court-martial proceedings. Patterson called on the Air Force to take action “against those in her unit” who violated her trust.

Nellis public affairs officials were off for Columbus Day and were unavailable for comment.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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