On Sunday, Lt. Ridge Alkonis was forced to leave his wife and three children to report to Japanese prison. An American serviceman had to explain to his kids that although he did nothing wrong, he had to leave them for three years.
While serving his country in Japan, Lt. Alkonis was involved in a car accident resulting from a medical emergency. The accident left two people dead. I speak sincerely when I say my deepest sympathies are with their families, friends, and loved ones. I can’t begin to imagine their sense of loss, confusion, hurt, and anger associated with this horrific accident.
It’s important to note, however, that this was an accident. In no way, shape or form do the facts of the case suggest otherwise. Yet, the Japanese court continues to insist that Lt. Alkonis had some culpability. They continue to float the false narrative that he fell asleep while driving. This is simply not true.
The accident occurred at 1:00 p.m. in broad daylight. Lt. Alkonis was well rested and had no reason to be tired or drowsy. In fact, he was having a conversation with his daughter when he passed out mid-sentence. He remained unconscious despite his daughter’s attempts to yell, scream, and kick his seat. Alkonis did not wake to his daughter’s cries, nor did he wake upon impact. No matter how deep a sleeper, anyone would be awoken by either. But he did not. He remained unconscious even after the collision.
Eyewitnesses reported that Lt. Alkonis’s color had drained from his face, consistent with someone who has suffered from a syncopal episode. He was too weak to open his car door after finally regaining consciousness. It’s disingenuous that Judge Kumiko Maesawa would offer such a simplistic view by stating that he should have pulled over if he felt drowsy. It flies in the face of the evidence and the experiences of everyone at the scene, including his family, who were present. The comments are even more egregious considering the Japanese government didn’t so much as bother to conduct an adequate investigation following the crash. He was even denied a medical evaluation before the Japanese police subjected him to 26 days of detention and interrogation before he was charged.
The United States Navy did conduct an investigation and concluded that Lt. Alkonis lost consciousness from Acute Mountain Sickness. There were no drugs or alcohol involved in the crash. Yet, even after the Navy concluded that he was not at fault, Lt. Alkonis did everything within his power to remedy the situation. He has paid over one and a half million dollars to the victims’ families, consistent with the Japanese gomenasai tradition. He has expressed sincere and deep remorse. Despite all of the mitigating circumstances, despite the deep remorse, despite using every resource at his disposal to make it right, he is still in prison.
I find it inexcusable that an American who experienced a medical emergency be treated so poorly by an allied Nation that he protected. Japanese nationals convicted of the same crime are routinely granted leniency. In fact, 95% of similarly charged defendants get a suspended sentence. Meaning they do not serve prison time. Clearly, the Japanese judicial system is trying to make an example of Lt. Alkonis stemming from a history of disputes over our Status of Forces agreement. An agreement that has nothing to do with him.
How can we ensure justice for the thousands of American men and women who serve our country abroad when they face prejudice because of their status as American servicemen and women? Lt. Alkonis represents our best. If our servicemembers can’t get fair treatment from the country they have been tasked to defend, maybe it’s time to revisit features of our Status of Forces agreement with Japan. Ambassador Emanuel, Secretary Blinken, and the Department of Defense should immediately take every step possible to negotiate with their Japanese counterparts and bring Ridge home.