Friday, February 12, 2010

Single Mother Is Spared Court-Martial


February 12, 2010

Single Mother Is Spared Court-Martial


Specialist Alexis Hutchinson, a 21-year-old Army cook and single parent, was days from deploying to Afghanistan last fall when her mother backed out of an agreement to take care of her 10-month-old son for the duration of her one-year tour.

Specialist Hutchinson’s mother, Angelique Hughes, had a child of her own at home and was also caring for a sick sister while running a day care center from her home in Oakland, Calif. Feeling overwhelmed, Ms. Hughes took the boy back to Savannah, Ga., where Specialist Hutchinson was based, and begged her to find someone else.


That is when Specialist Hutchinson did what might seem natural to a parent but to the Army was a serious offense: she stayed home with her child and missed her flight to Afghanistan. She was arrested and later charged with offenses that could have led to a court-martial and jail time.


On Thursday, Specialist Hutchinson received an other-than-honorable discharge, ending an impasse that had surprised many legal experts and spurred lively debate in military circles.


In a news release, the Third Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., said Specialist Hutchinson’s rank had been reduced to private and that she would lose some Army and veterans’ benefits.


The statement asserted that evidence from other soldiers and Specialist Hutchinson herself indicated that she “didn’t intend to deploy to Afghanistan with her unit and deliberately sought ways out of the deployment.”


Rai Sue Sussman, Specialist Hutchinson’s lawyer in San Francisco, said the soldier was prepared to deploy and that they would have rebutted those accusations at trial. “This resolution will give Alexis closure and the ability to move on immediately, without a lengthy trial and possible jail term,” Ms. Sussman said.


Legal experts said it would have been extraordinary if Specialist Hutchinson had been court-martialed over child care issues, saying they could not recall a similar case. However, hundreds and perhaps thousands of soldiers have been administratively discharged for such problems in recent years.


Some legal experts speculated that Specialist Hutchinson’s commanders threatened court-martial to send a message to other single-parent soldiers in the brigade. Last year, more than 10,000 single parents on active military duty deployed overseas.


“It could be that they have a ton of single parents and deploy regularly and can’t afford to have disruptions like this,” said Michelle M. Lindo McCluer, a former Air Force lawyer who is now director of the National Institute of Military Justice, a nonprofit group in Washington.


In its statement, the Third Infantry Division noted that there were many other single parents or dual-military families in Specialist Hutchinson’s unit who deployed to Afghanistan. “They have experienced similar challenges but have been able to overcome them so they could deploy with their units,” the statement said.


Specialist Hutchinson’s case unfolded about the same time as the division’s commander was embroiled in another controversy. In December, the commander, Maj. Gen. Anthony A. Cucolo III, who oversees forces in northern Iraq, issued orders threatening to punish soldiers, married or single, who become pregnant. (Punishment was also threatened for sexual partners.) The general, who has sent home about eight soldiers from Iraq because of pregnancy, later backed off the threat of court-martialing such soldiers.


Raised in Oakland, Specialist Hutchinson was a member of the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps in high school and then enlisted in the Army upon graduation. She wanted, she said in a written response to questions, “to get away from home and try something new.” Her son, Kamani, was born in January 2009.

Specialist Hutchinson declined to say anything about the boy’s father, other than that he had never been involved with Kamani. Ms. Hughes said she believed he was a former soldier.


Single parents are required to file family care plans months before deployment. In her plan, Specialist Hutchinson listed her mother as a long-term caregiver and in October she used a two-week leave to take her son to Oakland.


But it took only a few sleepless nights of caring for the infant for Ms. Hughes, 42, to decide she was in over her head. “I was working a full day and then staying up all night with Kamani,” she said.


Ms. Hughes said that she called Specialist Hutchinson’s company commander to explain the problem and that he said the specialist could delay deployment for 30 days to find alternative care. But apparently the delay was never granted because Specialist Hutchinson was arrested in November when she returned to her post, Hunter Army Airfield, a day after missing her flight to Afghanistan. In January, she was charged with absence without leave, dereliction of duty, insubordinate conduct and missing movement.

Kevin Larson, a spokesman for Fort Stewart, said Specialist Hutchinson had been given a previous extension to work out her family care plan, though he could not say when. Mr. Larson also said that a “notable national veterans organization,” which he declined to name, had offered to care for Kamani during Specialist Hutchinson’s deployment, but that she refused the help.


The legal wrangling over Specialist Hutchinson’s case stirred much discussion on blogs, with sympathizers wondering why the Army would prosecute a parent struggling with child care problems and critics questioning the soldier’s motives.


Ms. Hughes has heard some of that criticism firsthand. “People have said to me: ‘She signed this contract. She’s supposed to go. That’s her first priority,’ ” Ms. Hughes said. “My response is: ‘I don’t think so. This is her child. This is her family. This is her priority. The military is a job.’ ”



Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company


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