Secret Air Force program wrongly destroys career of cadet who exposed sexual assaults
By Rachel Alexander
Eric Thomas, now 28, was a cadet at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. While there, he was recruited by the Office of Special Investigations, a law enforcement branch of the Air Force, to become a confidential informant within the academy. He agreed to take on the task after he heard it would involve stopping sexual assaults. He was taught at the academy not to question superiors, so he didn’t realize he had a choice in the matter. His work resulted in approximately 25 criminal investigations, 15 drug convictions and three sexual assault convictions. It led to the first sexual assault conviction there since 1997, an area that had been neglected. OSI records state that Thomas was “very reliable.”
Yet when things went sour, OSI deserted him. Thomas started accumulating demerits for his activities with OSI. Once a cadet acquires 200 demerits, they are expelled. He, like three other cadets of minority ethnicity recruited for this work,acquired demerits for things like following alleged wrongdoers off campus., providing official statements used during various court marshal trials, and meeting with OSI agents during duty weekends. OSI did not inform his commanding officers about his work, so he received demerits for his OSI work.
OSI had him start palling around with a cadet named Stephan Claxton, who reportedly had sexually assaulted female cadets. Thomas was not supposed to leave the base the weekend of November 5, 2011, but he did so anyway in order to tail Claxton to a bar in Colorado Springs. One of the former cadets who went along with them became drunk and passed out, and since they didn’t know where she lived, they brought her back to the dorms to find her fiance. But bringing a woman back to the dorms could get them in trouble. Thomas put her in his bed in his dorm room. He did not realize that Claxton stayed behind and attempted to sexually assault her. Thomas caught him, got into a physical altercation with Claxton, and reported him to the commanding officer.
Claxton was sentenced to six months incarceration for the sexual offense. Thomas and the other cadets were disciplined for the infractions. Various Department of Defense reports, findings and official records have since validated Thomas’ reliance that OSI would step up to his defense. They did not. Thomas’ squadron commander, who did not know about his involvement with OSI, recommended expulsion. Thomas was given 309 demerits, enough for expulsion.
OSI told him not to worry and had him continue his secret work. They told him they would show up at his final hearing for expulsion — but they didn’t and he was expelled, merely six weeks before he was to graduate. Thelater claimed that he had earned the demerits prior to his work for OSI, but the Arizona Daily Independent examined the records and found that was not the case, he had only earned 90 demerits before the informant work started.
When confronted, the Air Force’s top commander claimed he had no knowledge of the OSI program. Same with the academy’s civilian oversight board. But The Colorado Springs Gazette confirmed in 2013 that the program exists through public records requests and talking to some of those involved.
When Thomas asked OSI for records showing his involvement, OSI said there weren’t any. Only when a member of Congress got involved did they turn over the documentation. His congressman, Rep. John Thune (R-SD) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), sent a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force and the superintendent of the academy, asking them to meet with Thomas. Thomas was denied a meeting. Thomas appealed to the Secretary of the Air Force over the dismissal. Secretary Deborah Lee James did not respond. The Academy labeled Thomas a “liar with low moral character, who was not fit for service.”
Thomas had been set to go to pilot school, beating out 300 other cadets for the opening. He achieved the highest rank as a cadet during his senior year and oversaw 400 cadets; a group and four squadrons. He received personal letters from the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator and Colonel of the Academic Department praising and supporting his “highest level of character, diligence, honor, integrity and fortitude.”
His life was been put on hold as he waited for the results of a Department of Defense investigation that went on for months. The results from the initial investigation have been concluded and substantiate all of his claims. But he needs action from either the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of the Air Force.
Since he was discharged at the level of someone convicted of a military justice offense, Thomas will never be able to serve in the military in any capacity. Meanwhile, the OSI has received several awards for the work he did.
Former OSI Special Agent Brandon Enos, who worked with Thomas while he was an informant, said, “I don’t think what the Air Force realizes, that when they actually punished Eric Thomas, they sent a very, very bad message to all the cadets. You don’t talk about sexual assault, as a victim or a witness, because you will not graduate.”
Thirty-three Arizona State Legislators were so shocked by Thomas’ situation that they sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson calling for an investigation. Thomas moved to Arizona recently, where he had hoped to receive assistance from Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a former Air Force pilot, but little has been done.
Time is running out for the young man. Soon he will be considered too old to train as a pilot. Part of the reason he still has the energy to fight so hard is that the facts and evidence are out there now. There are only three people who can help him. Readers can contact the Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis or President Donald Trump. If one of them intervenes, this wrongly targeted young man, who merely wanted to stop sexual assaults, may have a chance at a decent life again.