I first met Lt. Ridge Alkonis during his time at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was a close friend of my youngest son, Andrew. I would regularly meet Ridge in Annapolis during visits with my son, and even hosted Ridge in Arkansas for a Razorback football game one year.
From the beginning, I was impressed by Ridge as a young man for his dedication to serving our nation and living his Christian faith. Since his graduation from the Naval Academy, I've watched him develop into a strong naval leader and a caring husband and father.
Last year while serving overseas in Japan, Ridge took his young family on a final family outing to climb Mount Fuji before his coming deployment. After climbing a portion of the mountain, Ridge drove his family to get lunch. In the middle of a conversation with his daughter, he suddenly and without warning lost consciousness while at the wheel.
Despite the screams and kicks of his daughter, Ridge did not regain consciousness until several minutes after crashing into a parking lot, which tragically resulted in two fatalities.
Ridge was immediately arrested by Japanese authorities, denied medical treatment, placed into solitary confinement for 26 days, systematically deprived of sleep, denied legal counsel, and endured hours of verbal abuse during interrogations for days on end. Eventually Ridge succumbed to pressures from interrogators to sign statements in Japanese, which he couldn't read or fully understand, to simply attain bail, hoping that, once released, the U.S. Navy would help him.
After finally being released on bail and even though he had done nothing wrong, Ridge conformed to every Japanese custom to comfort and support the victims' family, which included paying a civil settlement of $1.6 million USD--the largest private settlement ever paid by a U.S. service member in Japan's history, a settlement that U.S. government officials encouraged Ridge to pay.
During Ridge's trial, the court translator was so incompetent that American witnesses were reduced to one word or short, simple phrase answers, preventing them from making their full statements. Although a military neurologist had later clinically diagnosed Ridge with acute mountain sickness as the likely reason for losing consciousness on the day of the accident, the Japanese judge rejected any medical explanation.
Ridge was convicted for "negligent driving" based on a false narrative that he was driving fatigued. Even with the conviction, military leaders expected Ridge to receive a suspended prison sentence, which is customary in Japan; however, he was sentenced to three years in prison, leaving behind a wife and three small children.
During Ridge's appeal hearing, the court rejected the majority of evidence Ridge sought to submit for his defense, including the police report from the accident. And on Wednesday, the Tokyo High Court rejected his appeal in full, even disregarding the civil settlement paid out--an unprecedented action by a Japanese court. In fact, 96 percent of similar traffic accidents result in suspended prison sentences.
What is most concerning to me is the utter lack of government support for Lt. Ridge Alkonis--from the military, the Department of State, members of Congress, and the White House. No one within the U.S. government has taken ownership of Ridge's case and fought for justice.
When Ridge's own elected officials in California refused to help him, I asked Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman to help. Senator Cotton is a veteran who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator Boozman serves on the Committee for Veteran Affairs. I know both gentlemen personally and have campaigned for them in numerous elections.
When I heard of the violations of the U.S.-Japan treaty and the human-rights abuses experienced by Ridge, I was certain Senator Cotton and Senator Boozman would help, and they have, to a degree. But after this blatantly prejudiced ruling in Japan, Ridge needs leaders to be strident in their efforts to pressure the Japanese government and the U.S. Navy to do the right thing.
While not an Arkansan, Ridge Alkonis is a fine American with an impeccable character who has served an exemplary naval career for 10 years. If this could happen to him, it could happen to any of Arkansas' sons and daughters serving overseas in our military.
If our elected officials will not stand up for an honorable active-duty service member, will they stand up for you when you are in need?
In the absence of support by government leaders, I ask my fellow Arkansans to support Lt. Ridge Alkonis by signing a petition at Change.org/BringRidgeHome.
Jon Eubanks represents District 74 in the Arkansas House of Representatives.