Two Court-Martials                     Bill Van Horn

VHA: Variable Housing Allowance. VHA began, as far as I can recall, when I was stationed at Eielson AFB in the late 1970s.  Eielson is about 20 miles from Fairbanks, Alaska, with the small town of North Pole, Alaska between the two.  The military was—and remains—one of the few organizations that has a special pay system depending on where a person lives.  There have been a variety of methods of paying housing allowances during the decades since our USAFA graduation.  The usual method is to pay a service member a certain amount depending on where the person was stationed.  So a military member living in Hawaii would receive a larger housing allowance than one living in Nebraska. VHA was a new program for some locations such as Alaska, in which a military member was paid the exact amount that he spent on housing. For example, someone who was sharing a rental and paying $200 per month would be reimbursed $200 per month, but a military member who was buying a house and had a $1,400 mortgage payment received a housing allowance of $1,400 per month.


I was taking some economic courses in an MBA program at the University of Alaska.  I also had a personal interest in Libertarian and Austrian School Economics regarding market incentives, finances, human nature, and economics.  It seemed to me that this new system would be susceptible to fraud, and would not encourage thrift in finding a place to live.  Landlords know how military members are paid, and could tell a military member that he was substantially raising the rent, but the landlord and renter could split the rent increase. This would financially benefit each of them—but at the expense of the taxpayer, and with the financial incentive to be dishonest.   


I wrote an analysis that described my concerns about this financial system, and sent it to the base housing office, and to whatever Air Force organization at that time that was running the VHA program.  No one else seemed to share my concern, and military members liked the extra income that many of them were now receiving. 


At this time, I was living in a 3-bedroom log home I had purchased near North Pole.  I didn’t need three bedrooms to myself, and I wanted roommates to be at the home for when I would deploy to Shemya Air Force Base in the Aleutian Islands for weeks at a time.


About this time, I found two other guys to live with me.  So I went to the base housing office, received the paperwork that I had to fill out, and worked with the housing office with the paperwork.  Turns out that this new VHA system didn’t have rules or even guidance regarding what type of allowance should be paid to a military member who is receiving VHA and is renting to other military members who are receiving VHA.  Being extremely aware that I was complaining about this very system, I fully provided all the financial documentation about my situation. I told the manager of the housing system that I wanted all the paperwork to be right and to look right. 


OSI: Office of Special Investigations. I received a call from an OSI agent asking to speak with me about my housing situation.  I agreed to meet with him.  He told me I could have a lawyer with me when we met, but I said I didn’t need a lawyer because I hadn’t done anything wrong. The OSI agent asked me questions for a couple of hours, and I answered all his questions.  I didn’t think much about this anymore.  I wasn’t concerned.


Some time later, I got called to the Legal Office. My Squadron Commander and a JAG were there. I was charged with a variety of crimes, asserting that I was intentionally stealing from the government through the VHA system.  I heard over and over again how I had filled out that paperwork just “to make it look right”.  Now I was concerned.


I was assigned a military lawyer, and we began preparing for my defense.  I asked for a jury trial, and a two day trial was set.  I met with an attorney in Fairbanks who did contract law to be a possible witness.  It was time to go to work to defend myself.


One day soon after that, a guy who worked in the legal office asked to meet with me.  He told me that he had been attending meetings at the legal office, that he was disgusted with how the legal office was proceeding, and that my Squadron Commander told the members of the legal office that he didn’t understand the specifics of what I was being prosecuted for, but he didn’t want this case to go to trial unless the legal office assured him that I would be convicted.  This was especially true because I had received some notoriety (and the Air Force Airman’s Medal for heroism) resulting from my rescue efforts after an RC-135S aircraft crash.  I was told that my commander was assured that I would be convicted.  The guy from the legal office never said anything that made any difference in my legal case, but it sure was interesting. Although the local JAGs usually do the trial work, a senior military lawyer was brought as the prosecutor several weeks prior to the trial to prepare for my court-marital.  I was told that he was provided with every piece of my military record, including my medical record, from when I was sworn in as a 17-year old cadet.


On the first day of my trial, I went for a run, prayed for strength and a clear mind, put on my Class A uniform, and proceeded to my court-martial. 


One of my witnesses during the first day of my court-marital was my sister, June Van Horn (now June Lindner), a graduate of the USAFA Class of ‘80.  She was there in Alaska by coincidence (if one believes in coincidences).  She was a pilot in the KC-135, and was TDY to Eielson for a month with the Tanker Task Force.  My sister didn’t really have anything relevant to say, but I thought it would be helpful to me for the jury members to hear my sister say how I was honest, loved the military, and had encouraged her to attend the Academy.  I remember on cross-examination her agreeing that I could be opinionated.  My sister has always been honest.


One of the military members of the jury had been awake all night doing Command Post duties. The Judge asked the Major if he would be able to stay alert for the next day of trial.  I was glad to hear him say he could—I didn’t really want to start this process over at a later time.  He only dozed a few times during trial that day.


The lawyer from downtown Fairbanks testified and said I didn’t do anything wrong.  In fact, he testified that I had consciously worked to fully comply with the VHA rules, even though those rules were conflicting and confusing. Jury members later told me that this made their decision easy, and they had real concerns about why I was being court-martialed at all.  So—I was found not guilty of all the charges.


I was later told that a screaming match ensued at the Eielson Air Force Base legal office.  What was the Air Force going to do with an Air Force Academy graduate who was court-martialed for serious crimes—but was then found not guilty of those crimes?   


Well, I went back on flying status, and continued to fly as an RC-135S Cobra Ball Electronic Warfare Officer.


Referral OER: Office Effectiveness Report.  I had never known anyone who had received a referral OER.  The person assigned to write my OER was ordered to write a referral OER on me.  He told me he was going to do as he was ordered. Thankfully, he had researched the issue, and chose to write the OER so that it was technically not a legally proper OER, and I could later get it thrown out or modified.  So in 3 of the blocks, I received the lowest possible rating, but with no comments.   In the other 6 blocks, I received the highest ratings, with great comments.


Court-martial number 2.  I was then assigned as an Executive Officer with a Maintenance Squadron at March Air Force Base in California.  This was an eye-opening experience.  Many of the young troopers were very creative in the ways they were getting in trouble in sunny California.  One of my duties was to work the paperwork for those airmen who were convicted at court-martials and being discharged, and to do administrative discharges to discharge other airmen for a variety of offenses.  One day, I received a call from a Captain in the legal office who was blistering mad.  He had been the prosecutor the day before against an airman in our squadron, and the airman had been found not guilty at his court-marital.  The lawyer proceeded to tell me that military members don’t face court-martials unless they are guilty.  I was told by this lawyer to process the guy out of the military even though he had been found not guilty at the court-martial. 


I met with the Commander of the Maintenance Squadron, and said that it didn’t seem as though we should discharge the airman when the legal process had found this airman to be not guilty.  My Commander told me to do whatever the lawyer at the legal office wanted me to do.


Wow.  Now what?  I had never met this airman, and wouldn’t recognize him if I had seen him.  But it didn’t seem right to now take action against him.  I met with the JAG to discuss this.  There were no reasons other than the court-martial to discharge this airman.  The JAG said he had never lost a legal case before, this non-guilty verdict was a black mark on his record, and he wanted the airman gone.


I then met with Colonel Murphy. Colonel Murphy had been the commander at Shemya Air Force Base for a year while I was flying out of there, and I had found Colonel Murphy to be a great commander with a lot of wisdom.  I really didn’t want to take any actions that were not appropriate. Colonel Murphy was not in my chain of command, but was at Headquarters 15th Air Force across the street from March AFB. Colonel Murphy and I discussed this issue at length.  He told me that it would be wrong to discharge this airman.  However, I could get myself in trouble if I did not do what my commander ordered me to do.  So now what?


“Fall on your sword”. Why should I do this for someone I had never even met? I was married, with a baby on the way. I was planning on leaving the active-duty Air Force, but I wanted to join the Air Force Reserve.  I really didn’t need any more trouble for myself.


The next week was the PFT, with the mile and a half run. The entire Maintenance Squadron ran the PFT.  I came in second place. The person who came in first was the airman I was ordered to discharge.  Perhaps all of this was a coincidence, if one believes in coincidences.


The West Point prayer says “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.”


I told my commander that I believed his Order to me to do an administrative discharge against the airman was not a legal order, and that I refused to obey this order of his to me.  My commander discussed this with the legal office, and the airman was not administratively discharged from the Air Force.


I received my second Referral OER.  I later had the bad parts of my first referral OER and the second referral OER removed from my military record.


And I got accepted into the Air Force Reserve.



Bill Van Horn

9491 South Johnson Court 

Littleton, CO 80127


303-948-8435   work

303-596-3615   cell


USAFA Class of '74 - published a book of our experiences for our 40th reunion!



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