Honor Rolled

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

Once everyone else had left, the chairman told him that the boardmembers thought he'd actually been in Denver rather than Colorado Springs on the night in question. "I couldn't believe it!" Josh remembers. "The case was never about me being in Denver! It was always an issue of why I said Denver rather than Colorado Springs. All the investigation questions were about why I said that; I thought it was always assumed I was in the Springs."

If he'd known, Josh could have submitted his credit-card receipt from Old Chicago as evidence. But it was too late.

A couple of days after the honor board, Josh went to the commissioned officer in charge of the honor division to explain that there'd been a misunderstanding. "She just told me what a bad person I was. She wasn't interested in listening to anything that was wrong with her system," he recalls. "Every officer I spoke to after that was the same: No one wanted to hear it; no one cared."

Former academy defense attorney James Williams 
counseled cadets before their Wing Honor Board 
Mark Manger
Former academy defense attorney James Williams counseled cadets before their Wing Honor Board hearings.

The group Air Officer Commanding told him, "I've decided to recommend disenrollment, but what do you have to say?" Josh remembers. He was in shock: "He already made up his mind before he met with me!"

At a different meeting, he says, his squadron AOC said, "I don't want you in my Air Force."

Although the academy can't comment on specific honor cases, Brigadier General Johnny Weida, the new commandant of cadets, defends the system. When asked whether innocent cadets can be found guilty by an honor board, Weida responds: "Let me answer it this way: Have you ever heard someone convicted in a court of law in the civilian world that claimed they're innocent? We do our best to administer the system in as fair a manner as we can.

"And although it is a cadet honor code, the cadets don't have the final decision. The final decision ultimately can rest with the superintendent. The cadet is reviewed by the staff that runs the Center for Character Development, and then it's forwarded to my staff, and then ultimately I review it. And then, should I choose to disenroll a cadet, it will be forwarded to the superintendent; and then the superintendent, should he choose, can send it to a panel that we call the Academy Board of very experienced officers that will look at the case from A to Z and give the superintendent advice and counsel on what should be done with the case. So I'm absolutely confident that we've made the system as fair as possible. So if a cadet thinks they've been treated unfairly, well, we've set it up as fair as we humanly know how."

In Josh's case, then-commandant of cadets Brigadier General Taco Gilbert -- who was recently reassigned to the Pentagon after being criticized for his handling of several academy rape allegations -- decided to accept the recommendations for disenrollment.

A cadet can appeal the disenrollment decision, but not the board's verdict. Such appeals can take months, however, during which time the cadet isn't allowed to leave base. Josh didn't want to put his life on hold any longer, so he resigned in May 2002. "I didn't even want to be an officer anymore. I couldn't believe they would let something like this happen and then not even listen," Josh says. "I couldn't believe every single person in the chain of command was like that. Why would I want to work with people like that?

"It was absolutely devastating. It's difficult to explain the feeling, but I was a sad person. I was crying all the time, and I had to talk to a chaplain at the academy," he continues. "People who have gotten DUIs and done drugs [which are not honor violations] have gone on to graduate. It just shows how incorrectly the academy is set up. They've put this honor code on a pedestal, and if you violate it -- no matter how big or small the violation is -- it's considered worse than breaking a law."

Since Josh couldn't reimburse the government $129,000 for the cost of his academy education, he was sent to Beale Air Force Base in California, to serve three years' enlisted time. Although he had planned to be in pilot school by now, Josh has come to enjoy working in combat-crew communications. Other than the summer jobs he held in high school, this is his first time having real responsibility. And he's adjusted well. In May he received the Operations Group Airman Performer of the Month award.

Josh had no intention of remaining in the Air Force after his three years were up, but after many months of frustration, he finds that his faith in the Air Force -- if not the Air Force Academy -- is slowly being restored. The people he works with have all been sympathetic to his situation, he says, and he's been given officer duties. He's even considering applying to be an officer -- and staying in the Air Force.

The tradition of upholding honor in the nation's military schools dates back more than a century, when fistfights were used to weed out liars, cheaters and thieves at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.

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