After a night of particular frustration in late December, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Pinkela decided to take a step toward finally finding justice for what he claims is a wrongful HIV exposure conviction. Pinkela wrote a Change.org petition entitled "Review an innocent soldier's wrongful conviction." It asks Secretary of the U.S. Army John McHugh to review and dismiss his court-martial so that Pinkela can rejoin the army, where he served for 26 years prior to his conviction in 2012. According to Pinkela, even though the main witness in the trial against him has recanted his story, that has not resulted in any movement toward Pinkela being declared innocent in the eyes of the law.
After his 2012 conviction, Pinkela spent 272 days in prison. Not only did he lose his retirement, medical and insurance benefits -- which is especially challenging given his HIV status -- there's one particular punishment that really stings. "I've lost everything. When I mean everything, I mean everything. I can't even have a flag on my coffin. It's as if I've been erased," Pinkela said.
In less than three weeks, Pinkela's petition had reached nearly 64,000 signatures, a number Pinkela is still amazed to have reached but now is ready to exceed.
"We didn't want to put a cap on it, because we didn't really know where it was going to go. The bigger the number the better, obviously," Pinkela said on a phone call from his home.
Aside from thousands of digital supporters, Pinkela also garnered support from the people at Change.org. Only 24 hours after he posted the petition on their site, he received a personal call from them. Pinkela says they were outraged. They were so stunned that they asked for documents verifying that the proceedings he mentioned were real. Pinkela's answer: "How big is your inbox?"
The interest from Change.org still amazes Pinkela. "I thought it was so professional," he said.
Pinkela added that one of the Change.org employees knew someone in a serodiscordant relationship (where one person is HIV negative and the other is HIV positive) who also had troubles with the U.S. armed forces as someone living with HIV.
Pinkela lives in Otisville, New York. His options for travel are limited, as every state has different statutes on how to treat his case. He says he cannot move back to Virginia because he was put on its sex offender registry without even having his case reviewed. If he plans to be in Florida for more than 48 hours, he has to notify the local police authority that he will be passing through their state.
Pinkela mentioned that he would close the petition when he felt he had gotten the amount of signatures he needs -- though he doesn't have an exact number in mind right now. As he writes in his petition, he just wants "to get my life back and continue to serve my country and support my family." Once Pinkela closes the petition, Change.org will print out the official petition as well as the signatures and comments as a single document, which Pinkela will then present to Secretary McHugh.
To learn more about Pinkela's case and to sign the petition, visit Change.org.
Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.