SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE — Something went terribly wrong in Lt. Col. Karen
On March 16, she found her 19-year career as an Air Force officer over, destroyed by her admission five days earlier that she had an improper relationship with an enlisted man.
As soon as her guilty plea and dismissal were upheld on automatic appeal — most likely, a matter of a few months — Tew would lose her rank and all her benefits, including her military life insurance and death benefits for her survivors.
Her two teen-age daughters would get nothing from the Air Force unless Tew died before her discharge was final.
That Sunday, as Tew sat alone in her parents’ St. Charles, Mo., home, she didn't reach for the phone to call the mental health counselor she had been seeing since early December.
She reached for a shotgun and put it to her head.
Farris and Viola Dwyer returned from church to find their only child dead at age 41.
Tew is at least the third military member this year to commit suicide after being charged with sexual misconduct. Her case was among those cited last week in a Time magazine article. But unlike the two others — an Army private charged with rape and an Army staff sergeant accused of indecent assault on a female soldier — Tew’s crime is not even illegal in the civilian world.
She's not alone — the Air Force's first female bomber pilot, 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn, now faces charges of fraternizing with an airman, adultery with the civilian husband of an enlisted woman, and disobeying orders to stay away from the men.
The Air Force has seen an almost yearly increase in adultery cases since 1990 and cases of fraternization — an officer having an improper relationship with a subordinate — shot up in 1994.
Both charges can get the offender kicked out of the service, but fraternization is considered the worst — it can bring up to two years in prison, while adultery has a maximum of one year.
With more women in the military, and units spending more time away from home, more opportunity exists for improper actions.
At the same time, Air Force leaders have been cracking down on such relationships, which the chief of staff, Gen. Ronald Fogleman, has described as part of the “climate of corrosion” and “culture of compromise” that threatens the service unless it returns to core values of integrity and honesty.
Capt. Bill Barksdale, a spokesman for Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, said fraternization especially can destroy a unit’s ability to work together.
“It’s tough, when you’re not in the military, to understand just what it can do to a unit,” he said. “It’s about fairness and equity in your workplace. It’s about professional working relationships — that’s what you want to maintain.”
It’s not clear why Tew would have jeopardized a career she had pursued her entire adult life.
Her estranged husband, who lives in Florida, did not return messages on his answering machine. Her mother was reluctant to talk and said she did not even know the specifics of the case.
Initially, Scott Air Force Base officials did not publicize the fact that a senior officer was charged with two counts of adultery, sodomy and fraternization. Barksdale said his office was not notified until after Tew committed suicide.
The Air Force has not released the record of Tew’s April 11 court-martial and the investigation that preceded it.
One supposition is that Tew, who was under counseling because she was considered suicidal, wanted to preserve benefits for her daughters, ages 15 and 16.
If she died before being kicked out, survivors would receive her military life insurance, a death payment and keep other benefits, such as health care.
“She understood that,” Barksdale said. “I know she knew exactly what would happen if she committed suicide.”
Until a year ago, Tew was what the Air Force calls a “fast burner,” especially considering she was not a pilot but a finance officer.
She was commissioned as a second lieutenant in May 1978, through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at Southeast Missouri State University. The previous year, she had married Randall Tew.
Officials said he served some time in uniform but now is a civilian.
Tew held a variety of Air Force finance jobs with increasing responsibility, earning two Air Force Achievement medals, two Air Force Commendation medals and two Meritorious Service medals.
On March 2, 1994, Tew reported to Air Mobility Command headquarters at Scott, where she became chief of the resource section for the command’s inspector general — a high-profile job that required frequent travel to inspect subordinate units all over the world.
Such an assignment, and the master’s degree she completed last year, made her a likely candidate for promotion to full colonel.
Before coming to Scott, Tew served as a comptroller with an Air Force wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Randall Tew and their daughters, Mary and Lisa, remained in Florida when she moved here.
Sometime between then and her suicide, Karen Tew began divorce proceedings, her mother said, but could not provide details. A divorce filing could not be found in either St. Clair County or St. Charles County, where Tew spent much of her time with her parents.
On April 15, 1996, the judge advocate general’s (JAG) office of Scott’s 375th Airlift Wing received a call from someone — the Air Force has not said who — accusing Tew of adultery with a major in the Marine Corps Reserve.
The JAG is the military’s lawyers. It passed the information on to the regional Office of Special Investigations (OSI), the Air Force’s detectives.
On April 25, investigators contacted Master Sgt. Craig Collier, another member of the inspector general’s team, who rented Tew an apartment in the basement of his house.
According to Barksdale, the investigators wanted to know whether Tew’s landlord knew anything about the Marine but got a surprise: When they asked Collier whether he knew why they were there, he told them he assumed it was because he had an affair with Tew.
Collier was given immunity from prosecution and ordered to tell the truth about his relationship with Tew.
Collier told investigators that between March and November 1994, he and Tew had sex at various temporary duty stations, including after he got married.
The relationship was dormant until August 1995, when it resumed and ended again within the same week.
Collier since has been transferred to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and could not be reached for comment.
Tew denied the allegations.
The Air Force ordered an Article 32 hearing, roughly the equivalent of a civilian grand jury investigation. Because of scheduling conflicts, it was not held until Nov. 25. Tew did not present a defense.
Tew’s defense counsel expressed concern that Tew was suicidal — she already had met with a chaplain a dozen times — and persuaded commanders to appoint a mental health professional who could meet with Tew in a confidential manner.
Between Dec. 4, when the Article 32 officer recommended the case be sent to trial, and her March 11 court martial, Tew met with the mental health professional 30 times as well as talking to him on the phone 40 to 50 times, an average of four contacts a week.
On March 11, Tew pleaded guilty to fraternization — the most serious charge — under a pretrial agreement, and two charges of adultery and a charge of sodomy were dropped.
Tew was sentenced to dismissal from the service and loss of benefits. Immediately after the sentencing, the mental health counselor spent between 90 minutes and two hours talking to Tew. They spoke for a similar amount of time on Thursday, March 13, and Tew confirmed an appointment for the following Monday.
She never kept it.
Viola Dwyer, Tew’s mother, said she knew her daughter was in trouble, but Tew told her little.
“I didn't even discuss that with her when she came home,” Dwyer said. “I asked her what her chances were (with the appeal), and she said she didn't think it would make a bit of difference.
“I know why she didn't want us there — she didn't want us to hear all of it.”
Originally Published, April 13, 1997, Belleville News Democrat, Belleville,
(c) 1997, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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