It's all-but-official: the military career of disgraced former astronaut Lisa Nowak is coming to an equally-ignominious end.
Late last week, a panel of three Navy admirals recommended that Nowak be demoted from Captain to Commander, and given a less-than-honorable discharge. The recommendation will now be reviewed by the Chief of Naval Personnel and Ray Mabus, the Navy Secretary. Under service regulations, Mr. Mabus can reduce Nowak's punishment, but not increase it.
Most Navy observers believe Secretary Mabus will show Nowak a measure of mercy, going along with the reduction in rank, but allowing her to retire in the grade of Commander, with the commensurate, decreased military pension. But it's not guaranteed. Mabus could decide to strip Nowak of her pension, a move that would cost her more than $1.8 million over the next 30 years.
Neither Nowak or her attorney had any comment after learning of the panel's decision. At this point, they've apparently decided that silence is golden, believing that any remarks might influence Mabus's final decision against the one-time astronaut and Navy golden girl.
Captain Nowak endangered her retirement benefits--made herself the butt of perpetual jokes-- because of one, incredibly stupid decision. In March 2007, she decided to confront Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, the girlfriend of her former lover, fellow astronaut (and Navy Commander) Bill Oefelein.
Driving non-stop from Houston to Florida, Nowak assaulted Shipman at the Orlando Airport. Captain Shipman managed to escape, but Nowak didn't. When the cops arrived, they found a variety of items that could have been used as weapons against Shipman. Prosecutors wanted to file attempted murder charges against her, but Captain Nowak eventually pleaded guilty to one count of a felony involving a motor vehicle and misdemeanor battery. She was sentenced to probation last year.
Once the civilian justice system was finished with Nowak, the Navy got its turn. Fired by NASA shortly after the airport incident, Captain Nowak was reassigned to the Naval Air Training Command in Corpus Christi, Texas. She remains in a staff billet at that command pending a final determination by Secretary Mabus. The administrative board that met last week represented the first step in the Navy's disposition of the Nowak affair.
We've been as tough as anyone on Lisa Nowak, but the time has come for a bit of clemency. Prior to her adulterous affair with Oefelein--and that later run-in with his new girlfriend--Nowak had a stellar record, becoming both a test pilot and astronaut. She served honorably for a number of years before Oefelein dumped her and she decided to seek revenge against his new lover, Captain Shipman. We hope that Secretary Mabus will consider Nowak's service before the incident in rending his final decision.
Besides, Lisa Nowak is something of a piker compared to the other military criminals who have slithered out the door in recent years, pension and other retirement benefits intact. We refer specifically to Air Force Colonel Michael Murphy, who served as a JAG for more than 20 years despite the fact that he had been disbarred in two states.
The Murphy case has been well-chronicled in this blog (and other forums). We won't rehash his sordid saga here; suffice it to say that we're still amazed at the legal gyrations that prevented him from being punished despite his conviction. Murphy was later reduced to First Lieutenant and retired in that grade, the result of a separate administrative action. An Air Force panel (similar to the one that heard Nowak's case) determined that First Lieutenant was the last grade in which Murphy served honorably. It was the rank at which Murphy entered the Air Force back in 1983; he spent only months as a lieutenant before his first disbarment, the point at which his honorable service ended. Yet, it was still enough for a pension.
Then, there's the queen of military miscreants, now-retired USAF Major Jill Metzger. She's the former personnel officer who apparently faked her own abduction while deployed to Kyrgyzstan in September, 2006. Metzger's story had more holes than a back road in Arkansas, but her connections with senior officers and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations prevented the case from moving forward. Despite clear contradictions in her account--and at least one failed polygraph--Metzger was medically retired from the service, supposedly suffering from PTSD. In retirement, the two-time winner of the Air Force marathon has competed in several long-distance races; with a 100% disability pension, she has plenty of time to train.
Obviously, Air Force case law (and the service's administrative decisions) aren't supposed to influence the other services. But, if the low bar of the Murphy and Metzger cases are any indicator, then Lisa Nowak has little to worry about, beyond a decreased pension and permanent damage to her reputation.
In a just world, Nowak, Murphy and Metzger would all be sent packing, with no life-long compensation from the taxpayer. Clearly, times have changed. We can't read the mind of Ray Mabus, but it would be a bitter irony if Nowak is the only one who achieves that dubious distinction.