A Navy lieutenant jailed in Japan will continue to get his military pay after Senate lawmakers ordered the move Thursday as part of the federal budget omnibus bill expected to be signed into law this week.
Lt. Ridge Alkonis is currently serving a three-year prison term for a 2021 car crash that left a pair of Japanese citizens dead. He was stationed in Japan on Navy orders at the time of the accident and has been imprisoned since last October.
His family maintains that Alkonis passed out while driving because of delayed altitude sickness brought on by a mountain hike earlier in the day. Japanese courts found him guilty of negligent driving and blamed the crash on Alkonis falling asleep behind the wheel.
Family members of the 34-year-old sailor have lobbied the White House to seek early release for Alkonis. But Defense Department officials have said they respect the Japanese legal process, and last month cut off pay and benefits for the service member and his family.
Alkonis had relied on unused leave and other time off to avoid being cut off from his military salary sooner. When it ran out, military officials classified him as absent in violation of orders, and made the pay decision.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, took to the Senate floor earlier this month to criticize the Navy for the move.
“This was not a criminal act,” he said. “This was a medical emergency, one that resulted in a tragedy … This is not a way to treat those who stand in harm’s way so that we can live and be safe and be free. This isn’t a way to treat anyone.”
The Senate in an uncontested voice vote added language to the must-pass budget bill that requires the Navy to “continue to provide pay and allowances to Lt. Ridge Alkonis … until such time as the Secretary of the Navy makes a determination” whether he will be kicked out of the service.
Alkonis is married with three children. In a social media post on Thursday, his wife, Brittany, said the vote by the Senate “has brought us one giant leap closer to justice.”
The Senate was expected to finish the budget bill Thursday afternoon, and the House was expected to vote on the issue late Thursday evening. The $1.7 trillion spending bill includes $817 billion for the Defense Department and $303 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs in fiscal 2023.
If lawmakers don’t pass a budget by midnight Friday, it will trigger a partial government shutdown due to lack of funding for government operations.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.