Mike Lee calls out Defense Department for halting pay of Navy officer jailed in Japan

The Navy officer suffered from acute mountain sickness before an accident that killed two people

Sen. Mike Lee took aim at Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for his department's handling of the case of U.S. Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis, who will see his pay cut off as he serves a controversial three-year prison term in Japan.

"Secretary Austin callously informed me that day that the request for the exception to policy would not be granted," Lee, R-Utah, said in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday, according to a report in Stripes. "I asked him why. He believed it wasn’t appropriate for the department to do that."

Lee's 23-minute speech comes as the Defense Department said it will deny a plea from Alkonis to extend his pay and allowances while he serves his prison term in Japan, a move Lee said would cause the officer's wife and their children, who are still in Japan, to be "kicked to the curb" as Christmas approaches.

Alkonis, who is based out of Yokosuka Naval Base, was convicted of negligent driving by Japanese courts in October 2021 after he was involved in a vehicle accident that year that resulted in the deaths of two people.

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Lt. Ridge Alkonis and a family member.

Lt. Ridge Alkonis and a family member. ('Fox News @ Night' screenshot)

In his appeal, Alkonis argued that he suddenly suffered from acute mountain sickness after driving his family through Fujinomiya following a hiking trip to Mount Fuji, causing him to lose consciousness. But his conviction was upheld Tokyo High Court, despite Alkonis providing evidence that both a general practitioner and a neurologist diagnosed him with the illness after the accident.

"Why is he in prison in Japan, did he steal something, did he harm someone? No, none of the above," Lee said in his floor speech. "This was not a criminal act; this was a medical emergency that resulted in a tragedy, and I’m sad that it did."

The Senator added that Alkonis suffered a "rare medical condition he didn’t know he had; he couldn’t have known that he had this medical condition. It caused him to lose consciousness at that moment."

Lee argued that the DoD should make an exemption for Alkonis, citing part of the law that allows for pay to continue under "unavoidable situations."

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Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc)

"It seems to me that if ever there were an instance perfectly tailored for this statute or an absence that need to be excused as unavoidable it’s that of Lt. Ridge Alkonis," Lee said.

The Utah Senator said that if the department won't approve the exemption, it should officially deny the plea and be forced to explain its decision to Congress, where Lee said there would be bipartisan support for changing the law.

"Of course, this is a no-brainer," Lee said.

DOD spokesperson Maj. Charlie Dietz responded in a statement to Fox News Digital.

"Secretary Austin informed the Secretary of the Navy that after careful consideration and consultation he denied the exception to policy for LT Ridge Alkonis," Dietz said. "Current DoD policy mandates that such absences may not be excused as unavoidable if a member is confined by civil authorities after having been tried and convicted of a crime and, if there is an appeal, the conviction is affirmed. Following a thorough review of the facts of the case, Secretary Austin concurred with the recommendation of the Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness against granting an exception to policy, since it would be contrary to military custom and practice."

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. ((Photo by Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images))

Brittany Alkonis, the Navy officer's wife, expressed optimism that Congress will work toward a solution in a social media post Friday.

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"I have had the pleasure of speaking to enough Congress Members to believe [Lee] when he says that if the Department of Defense won’t act, Congress will," she said.