The wife of a U.S. Navy lieutenant who has been sentenced to three years in a Japanese prison after he was involved in a traffic accident that killed two people said she is doing everything she can to reunite her children with their father.
“This is really about my kids, while it is hard for us, the ones really paying the price for this and for the alliance and politics are my kids,” Brittany Alkonis, wife of Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis, told Fox News Digital. “They are young and in the formative years of their life. They need a father.”
The family’s ordeal started after a hike of Japan’s Mt. Fuji shortly before Lt. Alkonis was set to deploy. The family had been in Japan for about a year and nine months as part of a three-year tour in the country, hoping to make some memories for themselves and their children before he would be gone for most of the next year.
However, the memory turned into tragedy when Lt. Alkonis suffered a medical episode at the wheel on the family’s return journey, hitting two vehicles that then made impact with two pedestrians who died of their injuries.
“That day we drove from sea level and by the end of hike we were at over 8,000 feet,” Brittany Alkonis recalled. “We hiked until we thought it was getting a little too dangerous for the kids and decided to head back. We were just 5 minutes from our destination, Ridge was mid-conversation with our oldest daughter when he lost all consciousness. We were only going about 25 mph, but he did not regain consciousness.”
Alkonis said she had also been feeling nauseous from the changes in elevation, leading her to lean her seat back and dose off shortly before the accident. She did not open her eyes again until the impact while her daughter tried unsuccessfully to wake up her father.
“It all happened so fast,” Alkonis recalled.
Lt. Alkonis was arrested at the scene, something his wife believed was routine while authorities investigated the accident, but her husband was soon subject to interrogations and solitary confinement and was never released from detention.
“This wasn’t a drunk driver, he didn’t fall asleep, but it only went downhill from there,” Alkonis said.
Lt. Alkonis would later be diagnosed with acute mountain illness, which is caused by ascending high altitudes too quickly and can cause sudden fainting for up to 24 hours, but the diagnosis was of little use in Japan’s unique judicial system.
An attorney for the family explained that it is Japanese custom to show remorse in court instead of attempting to argue your innocence, leading the family to issue a formal apology for the accident and pay out a $1.65 million settlement. They were told that over 95% of people that follow a similar path are given suspended sentences, but Lt. Alkonis was given the full three-year sentence. An appeal in which Lt. Alkonis presented his medical diagnosis was also denied, leaving the family with few options for justice.
“If we did know he’d go to prison anyway, we would’ve told them no,” Alkonis said. “The outcome at both trials was both beyond what anyone could’ve expected.”
Making matters worse, Alkonis believes part of the reason her husband is not receiving fair treatment is that an influential member of the court is a family member of one of those killed in the accident.
“One of the deceased is a family member of a prosecutor in the Tokyo high court who has a lot of influence,” Alkonis said. “I believe that has something to do with his sentencing.”
Her husband’s case has garnered rare bipartisan attention on Capitol Hill, with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., both calling on Japan to release Lt. Alkonis.
“I find it nothing short of inexcusable that an American who experienced a medical emergency should be treated so poorly by an Allied nation that he’s protecting,” Lee said during remarks on the Senate floor last week.
“Clearly the Japanese judicial system is trying to make an example of Lt. Alkonis – perhaps stemming from a history of disputes over our Status of Forces Agreement,” Lee added. “He is being targeted because he is an American – and because he was in the unfortunate position of having suffered a medical emergency that resulted in tragedy.”
The Status of Forces Agreement, a treaty that governs issues between American servicemembers and host-nation governments, between the U.S. and Japan has long been controversial among the Japanese. While Japanese courts retain jurisdiction over crimes committed by U.S. troops in the country, exceptions to the rules have at times caused negative sentiment among Japanese authorities who believe U.S. forces have extra privileges.
Levin made clear that the Pentagon should be doing more in the case, vowing that he would continue working to secure Lt. Alkonis’ release.
“I will not be giving up on Lt. Alkonis and the Department of Defense must not either,” he said.
The case also has implications for an alliance that has been stable for decades, something Lee acknowledged while also calling on President Biden to make the case a priority.
“We’ve been allies for a long time,” Lee said.
Mrs. Alkonis is also hoping to get the White House involved, noting that the support from lawmakers makes her “hopeful that the momentum is starting to move in our direction.”
“I am constantly doing things to get him out of jail,” Alkonis said. “I am going to D.C. in a couple weeks with the goal to speak to the national security adviser or President Biden, I will stay there as long as it takes.”
In the meantime, Alkonis said the ordeal has taken a large toll on her family. Unlike deployments, where she can explain to her children that their father is doing something meaningful and important, being in prison is something her youngest child “doesn’t understand.”
Communication is also difficult, limited to regular mail and two short 20-minute visits per month. The grim reality has caused Alkonis to focus her attention on securing her husband’s release.
“I am hopeful something comes out of the DC trip,” Alkonis said. “It is Important for the kids to see we are fighting for justice. We aren’t asking for special treatment, we just want to be treated as any Japanese national would be treated.”