A retired master sergeant who spent more than 15 years in the U.S. Army Band filed a complaint in U.S. Federal Claims Court on Aug. 1, which states that he was "systematically persecuted by a politically correct cabal who has repeatedly tried to censor his speech and mock his religious beliefs."
In the suit, and in an interview Thursday with Army Times, Nathan Sommers said the machinations that led to his retirement — an Article 15 that found him guilty of disobeying an order and other charges, a sub-par evaluation and a ruling by the Qualitative Management Program that ordered him out of the Army — were motivated by expressions of political and religious ideals that he said fell within Pentagon guidelines.
The Army would not comment on the lawsuit beyond a statement provided by Col. Josslyn Aberle, a spokeswoman for Military District Washington: "The soldier received due process from the military in addressing complaints [and] allowing the appeal processing for the QMP board, which determined the soldier didn't meet the qualification for retention on active duty."
Sommers' attorney, John Wells, said the Army has 60 days to respond to the complaint.
'Appeared to be ... a reprisal'
Sommers enlisted in the Air Force in 1988, received an honorable discharge in 1997 and joined the Army days later to begin his Army Band career. He said believes he was forced out because his superiors frowned on actions like:
■ During the 2012 election season, his display of several anti-Obama bumper stickers on his personal vehicle. Defense Department regulations specifically permit such political speech.
Stickers included the phrases: "Nobama," "Political dissent is not racism," Nope 2012," and "The Road to Bankruptcy is paved with Ass-Fault" (showing a Democrat donkey). Another read "Pray for Obama - Ecclesiastes 10:2." This bible passage states: "A wise man's heart tends toward his right, but a fool's heart tends toward his left."
■ His tweet in September of that year announcing he'd be serving Chick-fil-A at his promotion party "[i]n honor of the repeal of DADT." The fast-food chain was making headlines at the time for its stance against same-sex marriage.
■ His reading of books by conservative authors such as Sean Hannity and Mark Levin while in uniform, something he claims he was ordered to stop doing by a command sergeant major.
These acts, he said, triggered an investigation that would lead to no charges being filed. But in early 2013, he received "a substandard NCOER" and his "chain of command treated it as if it was routine."
"I was stunned by that," he said. "It appeared to be ... a reprisal for everything that proceeded it."
A few months later, according to the complaint, came another act Sommers viewed as reprisal: He faced charges under three articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: not obeying a lawful order, being absent without leave and making a false official statement.
Sommers said in the interview, and in the complaint, that the charges were false — that he had evidence to refute the AWOL claim, that the false statement was actually an mistyped date on an email, and that obeying the order, which related to the AWOL charge, would've required disclosing private family medical information.
The charges came a day after Sommers informed Fox News of what he perceived as religious discrimination, according to a June 24, 2013, report on the Fox News website.
Still, he accepted a letter of reprimand rather than fight the charges at court-martial, acting on the advice of Wells.
"If we'd gone to special court-martial ... you take the chance of a federal conviction," said Wells, a former Navy commander (O-5). "It looked pretty much like they were going to force him out. What I didn't want to do was mess up any of the potential of the [evaluation] appeal.
"At risk was his entire career of 25 years. After an awful lot of soul-searching, I made the recommendation that he take the Article 15."
Sommers accepted a written reprimand, he said.
The lawsuit states that the Article 15 "was taken in reprisal for Plaintiff's protected expression of his religious beliefs." It's one of many allegations leveled in the document, which was provided by Wells to Army Times, including the assertion that the QMP process should've been delayed or postponed because the evaluation that triggered it was under appeal and remained so until Sommers' last day of service — July 31, the day before the 25-page complaint was filed.
The Article 15 would've also started the QMP process.
Sommers' complaint requests the Army return him to active-duty status, but Wells said it's very likely the retired NCO — he put in his papers April 11, according to the complaint — would reach his high-year tenure limit by the time any legal proceedings wrapped up.
In that case, the suit asks the court to adjust Sommers' record to credit him for active-duty service from Aug. 1 through that HYT date.
He said the suit wasn't just about continuing his own career.
"I think it's sort of preventative," Sommers said. "I think this may be occurring in other places in the Army. I don't have a personal vendetta against anybody. ... I think what they did is wrong; the court's ruling will make that clear."
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.