An Air Force officer convicted of an unprofessional relationship with an 18-year-old female Security Forces airman is on his way out of the Air Force following a general court-martial last week.
A military judge ruled Friday that Lt. Col. Denis Paquette be dismissed from the service, the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge for enlisted personnel, for inappropriate behavior while commanding a small expeditionary base in Africa.
According to Military.com, criminal charges against Paquette stemmed from his time as commander of the 722nd Expeditionary Air Base Squadron at Sidi Ahmed Air Base in Tunisia where he was relieved of command Aug. 2, 2016.
Paquette, in his first time commanding a squadron, was tasked with standing up an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) squadron at what was then a secret location in Africa for operations.
The C-17 Globemaster pilot and married father with more than 18 years in the Air Force, chose to have his case decided by a military judge. He pleaded guilty to fraternization; violating a lawful general order on one occasion by drinking more than two alcoholic drinks at a deployed location in less than 24 hours; and to impeding an investigation.
The judge, Col. Mark Milam, ruled Paquette was negligent in performing his assigned duties, a lesser offense than the dereliction of duty for which he was charged. The judge also found Paquette did not violate the same general order regarding alcohol consumption on numerous occasions, and he was also found not guilty of the most egregious charge against him — abusive sexual contact.
The Air Force paints Paquette as a man who tried to elevate his mentorship role to one based on close friendship and sexual attraction.
“It starts out with a mentorship but it goes way, way, way over the line after that,” said Maj. Rachel Lyons, senior trial counsel for the Air Force, in court. “After that, he uses personal knowledge of her family to get closer to her — and to try to take the relationship to the next level.”
Witnesses described Paquette as a personable commander who made a point of getting to know all of his airmen, from their names to personal details about their families, goals and hobbies. But his gregarious leadership style backfired when his relationship with the 18-year-old Security Forces airman with less than a year in the service progressed from mentoring to a close friendship and sexual attraction, according to testimony.
Testimony revealed when outsiders became uncomfortable with the two’s relationship, they were advised to limit their personal contact.
To continue communicating out of the public eye, the two began writing what prosecutors called “love letters” to each other, while also still spending time together, including at a party one night in July where both were allegedly drinking.
Alcohol consumption at the base was one of the major themes of the trial, with prosecutors alleging that Paquette ran the base like a “summer camp” and a “frat house.”
During the OSI’s investigation, agents discovered letters Paquette and the airman exchanged, which led to the abusive sexual contact charge.
Paquette writes in one of his letters about one night when both had been drinking and sitting next to each other, “I moved my hand to your leg to hold your inner thigh. Yikes!”
Prosecutors argued the airman was too drunk that night to remember or to consent to the touching. But attorneys for Paquette said OSI took the case too far, since the airman said she didn’t feel like a victim.
“All along, this was always about a fraternization, about a relationship gone too far between an officer and enlisted and a violation of a general order,” said defense attorney Jonathan Crisp in an interview after the trial. “OSI took the letters and made more out of it.”
On his guilty pleas alone, Miliary.com reports Paquette faced up to a maximum nine years in prison. But Col. Milam declined to punish him beyond the dismissal.
The judge asked the airman during her testimony if she felt like a victim.
“Technically in writing I am a victim but I don’t feel victimized,” she said. The airman, however, said she was too drunk to recall if Paquette touched her inner thigh and that she would not have been okay with it.
The judge’s ruling means Paquette, originally stationed at Altus Air Force Base, Okla., won’t be eligible for retirement benefits, according to Military.com.
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