There are many ways a military member can be disciplined for failure to obey direct orders, failure to adapt to a military environment, financial irresponsibility, etc. The first thing most non-military people think of in this department is the court-martial, but that isn’t the appropriate punishment in all, or even most cases.
The United States military is governed by a document known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice or UCMJ. This book of military rules and regulations establishes a set of disciplinary measures intended to resolve such problems at the lowest possible level.
There are provisions for a uniformed service member to receive direct feedback from a supervisor, letters of reprimand and letters of admonishment (those two are distinctly separate), and other measures known as non-judicial punishment.
The Article 15 Nonjudicial Punishment Option
One form of non-judicial punishment (also known as NJP) is something known as the Article 15. Named after the section of the UCMJ authorizing it, an Article 15 is described on one military official site as, “…a military justice option available to commanders. It permits commanders to resolve allegations of minor misconduct against a soldier without resorting to higher forms of discipline, such as a court-martial.”
Article 15s are used at the commander’s discretion. Getting one is considered a serious matter in spite of the language used in the quote above. Depending on circumstances, mission requirements, and other variables a service member may or may not be denied the opportunity to re-enlist if they have an Article 15 on their service record. Many variables affect this possibility.
A first-term airman or new soldier might get an Article 15 in the early years of a military career for financial responsibility or some other issue–these might not be severe enough to warrant a commander’s decision on re-enlistment. Military official sites say this is a sign that an Article 15 is not officially a “career-killer”, but it’s definitely something to be avoided.
Whether or not a denied reenlistment happens depends greatly on a number of factors including the nature of the offense, whether the service member has since gone on to distinguish themselves, and whether the commander agrees that the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine should be kept in uniform.
Comparatively minor infractions can be outweighed in a commander’s eyes by future exemplary conduct after the NJP.
Just as in civilian court cases, a commander has the authority to impose a suspended punishment instead of a full-blown Article 15 or other NJP. This means that the commander could impose an Article 15 in such a way that it does not take effect UNLESS the servicemember violates the terms of the suspended punishment. Those who do violate the suspended punishment guidelines would be subject to having the full weight of the Article 15 applied to them.
Does Receiving An Article 15 Mean You Are Guilty?
Accepting an Article 15 does not mean accepting guilt. Instead, it means you accept the commander’s decision. Those who choose to plead not guilty in an Article 15 procedure must be able to state their case to the commander including the presentation of evidence, witnesses, statements, and other documentation to support your case.
Servicemembers Can Reject An Article 15
Article 15s are NJP, but there’s a catch; not all situations are such that the service member will passively accept that punishment. It’s easy to assume that in all military discipline situations that the commander is right to hand down punishment; sometimes the commander is wrong.
In situations where a soldier is handed the option to receive an Article 15, but the soldier doesn’t believe they were in the wrong, they have the option to refuse the Article 15 and request trial by court martial instead.
Anyone in uniform may, however, refuse to accept the Article 15 and instead demand trial by court-martial.
Servicemembers Can Appeal An Article 15
Anyone found guilty as the result of an Article 15 hearing has the right to appeal using the chain of command. The appeal would be delivered to the next-highest commander. This chain of command will look different depending on the branch of service you are in but in general:
- You have a time limit to submit your appeal
- Plan on submitting the appeal within five days of the decision
- There must be grounds for your appeal
- Be prepared to submit your appeal in writing
What factors are considered proper grounds to appeal a guilty verdict for your Article 15?
- The servicemember believes there is insufficient evidence to reach a guilty verdict OR
- There was disproportionate punishment OR
- Proper Article 15 procedures were not followed
Why People Choose NJP Instead Of Courts-Martial
Article 15 punishments are comparatively lighter than the results of a Guilty verdict in a court-martial. Under Article 15, eight days is the longest one can be confined. Compare that to the 200 day maximum of a court-martial verdict, which also carries the additional baggage of being a conviction in a federal court.
Article 15 punishments are at the command level and do not involve a trial in the same manner or with the same federal court implications. A rough and not-terribly-nuanced metaphor here would be viewing Article 15 NJP versus the court-martial on a par with taking a speeding ticket dispute to the state Supreme Court. The military needs to resolve these issues at the lowest level possible.
Maximum Punishments Under Article 15
The Uniform Code of Military Justice spells out the maximum punishments possible under non-judicial punishment. An Article 15 can carry with it any of the following:
- Reduction in rank
- Fines involving a percentage of one month’s basic pay
- Confinement up to 8 days
- Extra Duty
- Restrictions for 7 duty days
A Real-World Example Of How Article 15 Punishment Is Used
In April of 2020, the Eighth Army in South Korea announced Article 15 nonjudicial punishment for three soldiers from the 94th Military Police Battalion who were found guilty of having found a hole in the security fence line at Camp Walker in Daegu, for having failed to report the security breach, and used it instead to sneak off post to go drinking in direct violation of the DoD coronavirus lockdown orders given to troops in the area.
What was their punishment? All three soldiers were reduced in rank to the lowest possible (E-1), had their pay docked in excess of $800 a month for two months, and were placed on further restrictions for 45 days.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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