Honor Rolled

These Air force cadets were ready to fly. Then the honor board crashed their careers.

For more than forty years, cadets at the United States Air Force Academy have been pledging to live honorably and to abide by a simple code: "We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does."

It is their most sacred tradition, a bond to those who have gone before them. The Air Force Cadet Wing Honor Code Reference Handbook tells them so. As such, the honor code demands absolute loyalty. Violating any part of it could indicate serious character flaws -- flaws that could make cadets bad officers. And bad officers are a danger to their country. So liars, cheaters and thieves must be expelled from the ranks, and the honor code is the way, the truth and the light.

On the surface, the cadet-run honor system seems a way to ensure that Air Force officers are the best of the best. But former cadets and a former academy attorney say that the very procedures designed to ensure fairness are often ignored. That the most basic due-process rights -- rights cadets are prepared to defend in combat -- are not granted to them. That the system is sometimes used simply to get rid of a student who doesn't fit in. That the punishment -- particularly the frequent disenrollment of cadets just prior to graduation -- often doesn't fit the crime.

Brian Stauffer
The Air Force Academy booted Josh Moynihan just 
months before graduation.
The Air Force Academy booted Josh Moynihan just months before graduation.

But it's a system that cadets are taught to revere. "Second-guessing or questioning the results of a [Wing Honor Board] in any official record or communication improperly undermines the decision and respect due the [Wing Honor Board]," reads the honor-code handbook.

Like the academy rapes that Westword first revealed six months ago ("The War Within," January 30), the honor system's problems are both widespread and decades old. Between 1996 and 2002 -- the only years for which the academy has reliable data -- 821 cadets were brought up on honor charges; that averages out to roughly 137 students a year. In many cases the charges were dropped, but 323 cadets denied guilt and went before a Wing Honor Board, where 121 of them were found guilty. The 285 cadets who admitted breaking the code appeared before a different cadet panel, where all but ten of them were determined not only to have committed an honor violation, but also to have done so willingly rather than mistakenly. Of the cadets found guilty by either method, 96 resigned and 71 were kicked out.

As a result, many cadets, such as Andrea Prasse (see sidebar), have lost faith in the honor system. They claim that it's a moribund tradition with unevenly applied sanctions -- a fact that academy officials and members of Congress have known for years. In response to critical task forces and studies, honor-system procedures have been tinkered with but never seriously overhauled. Now, in the aftermath of the rape scandal, critics worry that the honor code will be applied even more broadly. In his "Agenda for Change," a set of reforms intended to improve the climate for female cadets at the academy, Air Force Secretary James Roche stresses the importance of not tolerating criminal behavior. He emphasizes that it's not the letter of the code that matters, but the spirit.

That has some cadets wondering just what this new spirit might mean for them.

Josh Moynihan was scared. Terrified, actually. His whole future was on the line, and he suddenly felt all alone.

He had wanted to be a fighter pilot since he was eleven. Watching the F-16s whiz above him at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, where his stepfather was stationed, was a daily wonder.

He knew the best way to get into one of those planes was through the Air Force Academy, so Josh applied and secured nominations from congressmen in Maryland, where he was living at the time. But he was turned away, his verbal SAT scores too low for acceptance. Determined, he called the deputy director of selections at the academy and sent the school letters explaining how motivated he was. Finally, the academy admitted him.

Josh studied hard and stayed out of trouble -- he says he had a flawless disciplinary record except for a few parking tickets. By his senior year, he had a 2.7 grade-point average -- above average at the academy, thanks to rigorous military training and a course load of more than twenty credit hours a semester -- and was ready to go to flight school.

But last year, just months before he was scheduled to graduate, Josh was accused of lying.

A good friend of his had turned 21, and Josh had been meaning to take him out for beers. So when his civilian buddy called and suggested they go to Old Chicago in Colorado Springs on the evening of January 16, 2002, Josh agreed, scrapping earlier plans to visit friends in Denver.

It was a Wednesday, and Josh left the base about 5 p.m., which put him "over the fence" -- off base without permission. The rules had changed that year, and senior cadets were no longer allowed to leave the base early on weeknights; in years past, they'd been free to go as soon as they were done with classes. Josh's fellow seniors hated the new policy -- which was designed to create more of a training environment -- and frequently left base early anyway. "I can say with certainty that no one who graduates from the academy hasn't gone OTF," Josh says. "It's no big deal."

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