It was one of those fateful meetings.
Staff Sgt. Evelyn Sosatoledo was working at the housing office on Kadena Air Base in southern Japan, where she had been stationed for about three years, when a friend she knew from Utah walked in.
They recognized each other immediately, and old feelings started coming back.
Dating, however, was out of the question.
Ledell S. Joiner was a civilian when he first met Sosatoledo years before in Salt Lake City. Now he was an officer, a captain in the base’s legal office. Military regulations about officers dating enlisted personnel are clear: It’s called fraternization, and it’s a crime.
So the captain and the staff sergeant decided to do something unusual.
“We talked about the situation we were in because we cared for each other but we knew we couldn’t date,” she said. “It was either lose each other again or get married.”
Two months later, they got married -- and their troubles began.
As a military lawyer with 2 1/2 years in the Air Force, Joiner knew his regulations well: Dating and courtship between an officer and an enlisted person are of official concern when they “adversely affect morale, discipline, unit cohesion, respect for authority or mission accomplishment.”
The maximum penalty is two years in prison, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a dishonorable discharge.
Fraternization bans were originally intended to maintain a respectful distance between officers and those under their orders.
Today, they also cover ground similar to bans on sexual harassment in civilian life, guarding against the abuse of power and unprofessional relationships.
Marriage itself isn’t banned. But prenuptial dating is.
So, Joiner and Sosatoledo say, they didn’t date.
“We wanted to do the right thing,” he said.
Joiner acknowledged that they spoke by phone, exchanged mail and met in group situations. But he said they were alone only once, for lunch at a Mexican restaurant, during the two months between their reunion and their marriage.
Joiner said he was away in the United States for nearly three weeks of that time. The day after he came back, he gave Sosatoledo a ring, and two days later, they were married by local authorities on the island of Okinawa.
Joiner, 31, of Memphis, Tenn., said he and Sosatoledo, 28, kept their plans secret because they didn’t want any impact on those around them.
“The regs say that for fraternization to become a problem that needs to be dealt with, it must have a negative impact on others,” he said. “Nobody knew what we were planning to do. No one was impacted in any way.”
“I told my superior three days after we got married,” Joiner said. “I never expected what was going to happen next.”
Less than two weeks after making his marriage public, Joiner was relieved of his main duties at the base law office and subjected to an investigation that led to a nonjudicial punishment hearing -- an action for less serious cases than those warranting a court martial.
The hearing resulted in a formal reprimand. Joiner appealed, but the appeal was denied.
An assessment of Joiner’s performance written in March by his senior officer, Col. John A. Dyer, noted that while Joiner was a “talented trial attorney” who had made significant contributions, he was “not a team player.”
“Do not retain,” the assessment concluded.
As more women join and remain in the military, marriages within the service are becoming more common. But of nearly 11,000 such marriages in the Air Force, only 439 are between officers and enlistees and, in most cases, both were enlistees when they married, and only later did one of them reach officer rank.
To many people familiar with military law, the action against Joiner was no surprise.
“He crossed the line,” said Annette Eddie-Callagain, who was an Air Force lawyer for 12 years before starting her own legal practice on Okinawa, where she frequently advises clients accused of wrongdoing by the military.
Eddie-Callagain said she does not believe that Joiner’s superiors overreacted since Joiner, as a lawyer responsible for upholding the rules, should have put them above his personal feelings.
“He was lucky,” she said. “When he decided that instead of following the rules he was going to follow his emotions, that’s when there should have been a parting of the ways. He should have ended it or left the military. Or waited until one of them was out of the military.”
She said the military needs to be firm.
“I think it’s a good policy,” she said. “To me, fraternization starts to erode the authoritativeness level of the officers’ ranks. There needs to be a certain respect.”
Col. Steven J. Lepper, judge advocate for the 5th Air Force, said the military showed great leniency.
“I would say the punishment he received was appropriate,” Lepper said. “The commander certainly could have done more.”
Shortly after Valentines’ Day, a sympathetic story about the marriage appeared in Pacific Stars and Stripes, a newspaper that serves the U.S. military community.
“The response was amazing,” Joiner said. “Air Force, Marines, Navy -- people were coming up to me to tell me how much they supported us.”
Joiner’s situation at work has continued to deteriorate, however.
On March 19, he was told that a transfer he had expected to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey had been canceled. Two days later, he received a memo from Maj. Jeffrey Branstetter, his supervisor, informing him that he was to report directly to Branstetter upon arriving and before going home.
He was also barred from talking to paralegals or leaving the office without permission.
“It was humiliating,” Joiner said.
“I never thought they’d take it this far,” his wife said.
Reared in Costa Rica, Sosatoledo has been in the Air Force for eight years and said she’d like to stay.
“I like it. It’s done me good,” she said.
She has faced no punishment.
Joiner said he will probably leave the military when his current commitment expires in two years.
The couple lives in a house just outside of Kadena base, where they both still work. Neither regrets the decision to marry, although they say it hasn’t been easy.
“We’re going through things now that most people would be going through when they’re dating,” Joiner said. “We’ve been through more in the first six months of our marriage than most couples have to deal with.”
“It’s a kind of strange thing for us right now, being married,” Sosatoledo added. “We didn’t have time to get to know each other first.”