SAVANNAH, Ga. — The Army said Wednesday it has filed criminal charges against a single-mom soldier who refused to deploy to Afghanistan last year, arguing she had no family able to care for her infant son.
Spc. Alexis Hutchinson, a 21-year-old Army cook, could face a prison sentence and a dishonorable discharge if she is convicted by a court-martial. But first, an officer will be appointed to decide if there's enough evidence to try a case against her.
Hutchinson's attorney, Rai Sue Sussman, said she still hopes the case can be settled without a military trial. She said the Army should consider Hutchinson's reason for not deploying overseas – that she was afraid of what would happen to her baby.
"There are other routes if they really want to punish her," Hutchinson's attorney, Rai Sue Sussman, said Wednesday. "I don't think the situation was serious enough to warrant a criminal matter."
Hutchinson of Oakland, Calif., was scheduled to deploy from Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah on Nov. 5. She skipped her unit's flight, saying the only relative she had to take care of her 10-month-old son – her mother – was overwhelmed by the task and backed out a few days before Hutchinson's departure date.
Kevin Larson, a spokesman for Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, said that Hutchinson was charged Tuesday with missing movement – for missing her overseas flight – being absent without leave, dereliction of duty and insubordinate conduct.
The stiffest charge, missing movement, carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
"The charges against Spc. Hutchinson stem from the fact she didn't do her duty," Larson said. "They know their deployment dates. They have to show up. Otherwise, they have to face the consequences."
Sussman said Hutchinson was at her apartment outside the Army post when her unit deployed, but was in touch with her commanders by phone. The soldier returned to the post about a day later, she said, and was arrested.
Sussman said the soldier was afraid to show up for her overseas flight because one of her superiors had told her she would have to deploy and turn her child over to the state foster care system.
Larson said the Army would not deploy a single parent with no one to care for her child.
The decision to charge Hutchinson was far different than the Army's handling of another recent case involving a military mom.
Lisa Pagan of Davidson, N.C., was granted a discharge after she fought being recalled to the Army, under the military's "individual ready reserve" program, four years after she left active duty.
Pagan reported for duty at Fort Benning in west Georgia last February with her two young children in tow. She argued that her husband traveled for business too often to care for their children alone. While Pagan and her attorney battled the Army through appeals, she was never accused of refusing orders.
The Army requires all single-parent soldiers to submit a care plan for dependent children before they can deploy to a combat zone.
Hutchinson had such a plan – her mother, Angelique Hughes, had agreed to care for the boy. Hughes said she kept the boy for about two weeks in October before deciding she couldn't keep him for a full year.
According to the Defense Department's latest demographic report, there are more than 70,500 single parents on active duty in the U.S. military – about 5 percent of all service members. Nearly half of military single parents are in the Army.
Cases like Hutchinson's, where a conflict between deployment orders and parental duties lead to a prosecution, appear to be rare, said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain a who studies how military policies affect women for the nonprofit Women's Research and Education Institute.
"There are thousands upon thousands of single parents that have deployed since the war in Afghanistan started," Manning said. "Things don't fall apart that often. Sometimes the family care plan doesn't work for whatever reason, but overall it works well."
Hutchinson's commanders granted her a leave last month so she could spend the holidays at her mother's home in California. Before that, she had been prohibited from leaving the Army post.
Hutchinson, who is assigned to the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, joined the Army in 2007 and had no previous deployments. Sussman said Hutchinson is no longer in a relationship with her son's father.
Hughes said she's already taking care of her ailing mother and sister, as well as a daughter with special needs. She also runs a daycare center at her home, keeping about 14 children during the day.
Hughes said she returned Kamani to his mother in Georgia a few days before her November deployment.
She said they told her daughter's commanders they needed more time to find another family member or close friend to help Hughes care for the boy, but Hutchinson was ordered to deploy on schedule.
Hutchinson's son, Kamani, was placed into custody overnight with a daycare provider on the Army post after she was arrested and jailed briefly in November for skipping her flight. Hutchinson's mother picked up the child a few days later and took him back to her home in California.
Hutchinson is not in custody. Sussman said Wednesday that Hutchinson's son, who had his first birthday this month, returned home with his mother to Georgia after the holidays.
Russ Bynum has covered the military based in Georgia since 2001.