Honor Rolled

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

"Formalization of the honor system started to evolve in the late 1800s, when cadets began organizing 'vigilance committees.' The vigilance committee investigated possible honor violations and reported its findings to the cadet chain of command," stated a 1995 General Accounting Office report on the honor systems at the Military, Naval and Air Force academies that was commissioned after various cheating scandals caught the attention of Congress. "If a cadet was found guilty, he would be pressured to resign. Although these committees were not officially recognized by Academy authorities, their existence was tolerated and their decisions unofficially sanctioned. In 1922, during the administration of Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur as Superintendent, a formal student honor committee was established, and it codified the existing unwritten rules."

All three academies now have their own, very similar honor codes. The Air Force Academy adopted an honor code in 1956 and then slightly reworded it in the early '60s to read as it does today. The Naval Academy's, however, is more of a concept than a code. In 1950, the Annapolis, Maryland-based school came up with the phrase "Midshipmen are persons of integrity: They stand for that which is right" because, the GAO report explained, the superintendent "did not want a system that would codify right and wrong, or a system that over the years would become so involved with loopholes and elastic clauses that soon its very principles would degenerate into a set of rights and wrongs that would enable and tempt midshipmen to do wrong yet still be within the codified system's bounds of right."

Which is exactly what Josh Moynihan and other survivors of the system suggest has happened at the Air Force Academy.

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

"To have an institution with an honor code is a good thing," says former cadet Sean Dariushnia. "The problem is not with the honor code; it's with the honor system -- and the system is flawed. The way the system enforces the code is inappropriate; it goes overboard and becomes a witch-hunt at times."

On paper, the honor code appears to have careful safeguards against error and abuse, with a rigid chain of command operating throughout. But it's still run by a committee of 164 cadets, or honor officers, elected by their peers for two-year terms and given the power to not just run honor-training courses, but to punish their fellow cadets and end careers.

That's a major concern of the GAO report, in which defense attorneys interviewed "questioned whether students in their late teens and early twenties have the maturity of judgment and perspective to make such highly subjective judgments where the consequences can taint an individual for life, noting that it seemed ironic that the honor system was virtually the only area of academy life where academy authorities treated students as though they were responsible adults."

Brigadier General Weida has no such qualms. "It needs to be a cadet-run system because, like everything else in life, if you take ownership of it and it's your deal, you're more apt to embrace it," he says. "But because of the serious consequences of an honor violation, we have officer review of the results. I think it's a good check and balance."

Lieutenant Colonel Ron Watkins, chief of the academy's honor division, agrees. "I believe we can trust these cadets to do this," he says. After all, soldiers in their teens and twenties make life-or-death decisions when they're sent into battle.

Anyone can bring an honor allegation to the committee -- be it another cadet, an officer or even a civilian -- although those making the allegations are pretty evenly split between cadets and officers. The vast majority of the hearings are for lying, followed by cheating, with stealing and "toleration" making up only small percentages of the overall cases.

But before the committee hears any case, the accuser must first confront the cadet. If the accused refuses to discuss the situation or doesn't satisfactorily answer questions, then the honor committee must be notified and hold a fact-finding clarification, which "is [meant] to get everything on the table, and the focus of this whole system is do the right thing, just explain what happened," Watkins says. "All the cadet has to do is tell the truth from the very beginning. If the system is going to default, it will default in favor of the cadet."

The hearing is also supposed to happen in a non-threatening environment, where the accused feels "at ease." And that's a sticking point for cadets going through the process: They don't feel at ease being grilled about their integrity.

"There is no situation more adversarial than when someone's honor and character are called into question," the GAO report paraphrased a service-academy attorney as saying.

The inquiry ends if the clarification is successful. But if any questioner is still suspicious, the honor division must be notified, turning the allegation into a case. (In the event that the alleged honor violation involves possible criminal action -- for example, a cadet who applies for a credit card in someone else's name and then makes charges on it -- the case must be reported to the academy's legal department and may instead fall under the military justice system.)

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