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To Arms: Sexual Abusers after the Military and a Call for Action 

It is a well-known fact of life that many of those accused or even convicted of sexual assault, harassment, or abuse within the U.S. Armed Forces can go about their daily lives without much change. Many are able to lead active and personally prosperous lives while their victims in some cases are jailed, forced out of the military, or take their own lives.

One such individual is Michael D. Kepner II, an honorably retired Lieutenant Colonel of the United States Army. He is a sexual assaulter who has been able to engage in an active, financially and professionally profitable life outside of the military despite a conviction and sentencing.

Colonel Kepner and The Evasion of Real Accountability

Lieutenant Colonel Michael D. Kepner was assigned to the 83rd Chemical Battalion at Fort Stewart, Georgia as the battalion commander in September of 2014 when the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) began investigating him for sexual assault and harassment.

According to the official agent’s investigative report (obtained by The Washington Post), from January to September 2014, LTC Kepner made sexually suggestive comments to a 2nd Lieutenant under his command before “[placing] his hands on the female officer’s shoulders, [pressing] her against the wall” saying “This is what all those horny lieutenants want to do to you” and “Let’s do it on this desk”. In the interview with CID, Kepner admitted he had placed hands on the 2nd Lieutenant and made sexually suggestive comments towards her, stating this was “playful banter”, that he was “old Army”, and “that he never intended anything sexual”.

According to the 2nd Lieutenant, in a sworn affidavit, she detailed how Kepner told her he had previously been investigated for a different sexual assault case and received a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand (GOMOR) in his file and “was arrogant about the fact he wasn’t being relieved” often bringing up his relationships to those in the XVIII Airborne Corps and his purported close relationship to a Brigadier General. She also described how the military only took the case seriously when he violated “a written order not to come near [her]” closing with “I do not believe I was the first person LTC Kepner assaulted and/or manipulated, but I would like to be the last”.

Kepner was relieved from his post with the 83rd Chemical Battalion following the beginning of the investigation, yet was reassigned as deputy commander of the 188th Infantry Brigade and allowed to keep his security clearance, in violation of Army policy. According to Army records and social media postings, Kepner “frequently served as the brigade’s acting commander and led the unit in training exercises”; after five months in this capacity, Kepner was charged with multiple crimes including violating a protective order and sexual assault. Another 2nd Lieutenant also came forward detailing further instances of sexual assault while a Major stated Kepner actively undermined a sexual assault training, effectively providing the view that the case study’s assaulter “gave in to temptation” from the case study’s victim and was instead simply “a man being a man”.

In spite of being charged with a crime, Kepner was allowed to remain in his position as Deputy Commander, only being removed following a Congressional complaint.

Kepner, on 14 September 2015, a year after the initial investigation began, pled guilty to “two specifications of assault consummated by battery and three specifications of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” stating in his plea “I made a mistake. I screwed up. I apologize for what I thought was a consensual relationship. I didn’t mean to terrorize anyone”.

While this seems like a win for military justice and the victim, I argue this is not. Kepner did not pled guilty to anything resembling sexual assault and “was sentenced to four months in prison by a military judge” being “able to retire with a distinction of honorable service in June of 2016”. So, Kepner assaulted multiple women, made a plea deal with prosecutors, served less than half a year in prison and was able to retire with full honors and benefits? This is not any form of real, true, long-lasting justice.

Upon his retirement from the Army, Kepner moved to Florida and in January 2017, joined Valencia College in Orlando, Florida before becoming the “director of the college’s advanced manufacturing program” according to an investigation done by the Orlando Sentinel. According to their investigation, Kepner was fired from Valencia College after an administrative report came to the conclusion he fostered “discomfort and uneasiness in the office … yelled at employees in front of others [on multiple occasions]” and made racist remarks by stating to Hispanic instructors there were too many Hispanics on staff and that, when a Muslim instructor stated in his [Kepner’s] presence “he knew Syrian refugees who would be great additions to the university … [Kepner responded] if these individuals would be making bombs”.

Kepner now works as the Director of Military and Veteran Student Success at the University of Central Florida, having been in this role since July 2022. In this capacity, Kepner now works in assisting student veterans on the UCF campus, developing “programs and opportunities” for veteran success throughout the Orlando and Central Florida area while also creating “an enriching and inclusive environment for military-affiliated students”.

In neither case of obtaining a position with Valencia College or the University of Central Florida did Kepner disclose he had been convicted of assault, providing only a “copy of his certificate of release from active duty, where only one line near the bottom of the form indicates that his retirement had to do with what the military deemed unacceptable conduct”. In August of 2023, UCF admitted they found “weaknesses in UCF’s hiring process” which directly led to Kepner’s hiring and, while “investigators did identify discrepancies in Mr Kepner’s disclosures to UCF [they] found no evidence that this was an attempt to conceal information or deceive UCF”.

As of September 2023, Michael D. Kepner II is still on the staff of UCF with an honorable discharge, military pension, and a military conviction for assault. His story is indicative of many individuals who commit egregious acts of sexual assault and harassment while in the service. They receive a slap on the wrist in terms of punishment and are effectively able to go about their daily, post-military life without much trouble.

How Do We Ensure Justice is Dealt?

Many individuals escape justice for their crimes. They are never brought to court, they are never named publicly, they are never brought before a jury of their peers and forced to hear the details of their life-altering crimes against another person heard. Those that are may receive a slap on the wrist or no punishment whatsoever, being able to leave the service with an honorable discharge, a pension, or their reputations intact.

In the Kepner case, he pled guilty to an assortment of crimes which eyewitness testimony (and criminal investigators) believed were sexual in nature. No matter the claims provided by Kepner that this was locker room talk or that his blatantly sexual comments were not intended to be sexual, I argue it is quite apparent that his comments fully were sexually abusive, harassing, and that had the other party indicated a desire to sleep with him, he would have done so. Despite this, despite a criminal conviction by a military court of law, Kepner is still able to live an incredibly normal, rewarding, and presumably financially profitable life while remaining a pillar within the Central Florida veterans’ community.

There are these select cases where individuals receive judicial punishment, yet it pales in comparison with their crimes and does not bring about justice for the victim, the unit, or the everyday U.S. citizen. The question we as advocates are left with is how can we help in bringing about justice to those senior and junior officers and enlisted, those civilians, and those foreign individuals who have been abused by individuals in uniform and escape justice?

For cases in which the perpetrator’s name is publicly known (either through a news report, leaked official documents, etc.) I argue to never give up advocating that their crimes be known. Continually inform those in their surrounding community of their past behavior and make their workplace accountable for this individual’s actions. Making petitions, being an ethical advocate, and being tireless in the pursuit of out-of-court, societal justice is perhaps one of the most surefire ways to ensure an individual never forgets or tries to bury their past criminal behavior.

In Kepner’s case, it would be to take this case to social media platforms and make it known to UCF’s Leadership, their President and Provost, the State University System of Florida and its Chancellor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools that a member of the staff there has committed a serious crime and has not displayed the qualities necessary to work with individuals of a different background nor treat individuals with respect and dignity. Inform them that his history of physical and verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and racist remarks towards co-workers is anathema to the desired tenants of UCF. Making petitions and calling for accountability from those who employ individuals with a criminal and public background of assault and abuse helps ensure we continue to advocate for victims and never allow their abusers to harm others or be in a position to harm others.

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Conclusion

According to UCF’s official website, “The University of Central Florida is a community brought together by the tenets of the UCF Creed: Integrity, Scholarship, Community, Creativity, and Excellence” these values being intended to “guide our conduct, performance, and decisions” and value “diversity, equity, and the inclusion of all in our community”.

Michael Kepner’s behavior and comments while a battalion commander and deputy brigade commander appear to be those of an arrogant and abusive individual. His actions at Valencia College appear to be those of a racist and verbally abusive man. His actions in applying to UCF, while possibly not deliberate, showcase a desire to downplay the more concerning aspects of his work history. This is not an individual who exhibits integrity or excellence in their craft.

Nowhere here do I personally see an individual taking accountability for their actions or desiring to grow and learn from their past behavior. I instead see an individual who received a minimum, inequal sentence for a terrible crime which reflects poorly on the U.S. Army as a whole while portraying themselves as externally honorable.

Alan Cunningham is a contributing writer for Combat Sexual Assault and an advocate for military sexual assault reform. Any views, thoughts, opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views, opinions, or official standpoint of any of the author’s affiliations, including educational institutions, past and present employers.

 

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