The case of a Navy sailor in Hawaii whose complaint of discrimination prompted multiple military investigations is getting attention from national advocacy groups.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jon Stremel alleged that employees of a military program meant to help domestic abuse survivors ignored his claims that his now ex-wife was abusing him and their son because he is male. Stremel is set to leave the Navy in coming months, but said he plans to remain in Hawaii and intends to pursue a law degree.
“This experience has given me a new direction in life,” he said.
He is currently working with the Protect Our Defenders, which represents military victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, and Minority Veterans of America on proposed legislation that he authored aimed at making it easier for service members and veterans to sue the military for discrimination.
Stremel’s personal battle reached a conclusion this week when a judge granted the divorce between Stremel and his wife and ordered them to share legal custody of their son after rejecting all allegations of family violence, according to court documents.
The court found Stremel’s “testimony lacks credibility in most respects, particularly as it pertains to his allegations of domestic violence and abuse.”
Stremel’s ex-wife has denied allegations of abusing their child. Her attorney, David Hayakawa, welcomed the court’s decision.
“Every Family Court Judge who reviewed and issued a ruling on Mr. Stremel’s abuse accusations at numerous hearings and in two separate extensive Family Court trials found the accusations to be without merit,” Hayakawa said in an email.
Meanwhile, Stremel is hoping to take his anti-discrimination fight to Capitol Hill.
His efforts began after a panel of military officials rejected his allegations of abuse in 2018. He then filed an Equal Opportunity complaint against Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam’s Family Advocacy Program, alleging that the office cherry-picked evidence it submitted to the review panel.
The military panel’s findings were used in his civil court proceedings, including a hearing on Stremel’s attempt to renew a temporary restraining order against his then-wife. The court ultimately rejected his request and granted her a restraining order against him.
Stremel also said that FAP employees ignored pleas for help for months. The military’s EO investigation on Stremel’s allegations remains open.
Hayakawa previously told Civil Beat that he didn’t believe the Navy documents were decisive in any court proceedings.
A Navy investigator who reviewed the FAP’s handling of evidence in Stremel’s case noted what he considered troubling conduct by FAP employees, and ultimately recommended that the entire staff be retrained and all the office’s policies and practices be reviewed.
FAP supervisors “appear to have unilateral authority regarding what documents/evidence is presented” for review and “supervisors have free range authority to make decisions, unchallenged and based solely on ‘clinical experience,’” the investigator found.
In addition to filing the EO complaint, Stremel explored the possibility of suing the Navy but learned he couldn’t. A legal precedent known as the Feres Doctrine prevents lawsuits by active service members in most cases.
It comes from a 1950 Supreme Court ruling concluding that the 1946 Federal Tort Claims Act makes the U.S. government not liable for any injury or harm service members may sustain while on active duty resulting from the negligence of fellow troops or military officials.
But the Feres Doctrine has come under renewed scrutiny recently with several lawmakers looking at potential ways to weaken or overturn it.
In 2020, the annual congressional defense funding bill included a provision allowing troops to file personal medical malpractice claims but stopped short of actually allowing them to sue for damages. So Stremel decided to draft a new bill that would allow service members to sue the military for discrimination.
When he told veteran advocacy groups about his allegations of discrimination and his proposed legislation, they took notice. Adelaide Kahn, director of programs and policy for Protect Our Defenders, said the national advocacy group became interested when Stremel sought the organization’s services.
“Through a routine intake interview we learned more about his case and then consequently were introduced to the legislation that he’s working on,” she said. “It’s quite bold, because it basically would contradict the Feres Doctrine.”
Kahn also said Stremel’s case provided an opportunity to bring greater awareness about problems with FAP offices across the military.
“I have probably only literally less than a handful of cases come to mind where somebody had a good experience with FAP,” Kahn said. “In that sense Jonathan’s case is a very good example of FAP’s inadequacies, especially when it comes to male service members who are experiencing domestic violence.”
Kahn noted that while much of her work focuses on advocacy for women in the military and veterans, men in the military have a long history of facing indifference to claims of sexual abuse and domestic violence as well.
“Once we heard what he was going through, we knew that we couldn’t, you know, stand by and not do anything to help,” said Minority Veterans of America spokeswoman Crystal Ellington.
Stremel, a straight white male, doesn’t match the typical profile of cases taken on by Minority Veterans of America. But Ellington said MVA believes it’s an important one.
“This was so important to us because discrimination obviously can come in any form,” she said. “The organization that was supposed to be helping Jon get help for him and his son was discriminating against him based on the fact that he is a male.”
The groups said the court rulings on Stremel’s divorce had no impact on their interest in lobbying for the legislation.
“I think that the outcome of the case is more concerning for Jon from a personal standpoint,” said Ellington. “From an advocacy and a policy standpoint, it is still very important that this bill is introduced and passed.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.