Honor Rolled

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

In February 1995, he finally heard from the Air Force: the secretary had denied his appeal and was ordering him to report to active duty as an enlisted officer. Through an attorney, Sean offered to pay the government the $80,000 cost of his education in return for his discharge, or to attend medical school and serve his Air Force time as a doctor.

The Air Force verbally agreed to the latter, and Sean was again accepted into Ohio State University's medical school. But the secretary rescinded the offer just after he'd started fall classes. He'd have to serve enlisted time. With help from his attorney, Sean obtained a temporary restraining order from a federal court in Ohio barring the Air Force from making him serve. But the court refused a permanent injunction, saying he needed to exhaust all of his military remedies first. His only recourse was the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records, an entity that moves about as fast as molasses. In the meantime, Sean says, "I had 24 hours to get down to Texas."

While he worked as a nurse's aid at Sheppard Air Force Base, Sean came up with the idea of joining the Reserve. That way, he could go home, attend medical school and serve his time all at once. The commander at Sheppard agreed to the request and forwarded it to the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base.

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

When he heard in April 1996 that the personnel center had approved his request, Sean felt hopeful for the first time in almost three years. He wasted no time packing his bags and was just about to leave base when his sergeant called him with bad news: Orders had come down from Washington that the personnel center's approval had been overturned. Sean would have to remain in Texas and serve the rest of his three years. "It was like a prison sentence," Sean remembers. "At that point, I hit a wall mentally. I had to be hospitalized for depression."

Being treated for depression meant Sean might be unfit for military service, so his case went before a medical review board on May 2, 1996. The board agreed with the depression diagnosis, and a physical-evaluation board decided later that month that Sean should be discharged. Sean's doctors told him he'd be free to leave within two weeks; all that was needed was for the Air Force Personnel Center to process his separation order. "I felt they'd find some way to keep me there, and, in fact, that's what did happen," he says.

After weeks went by with no word, Sean's psychiatrist, Colonel Thanesseri Baskaran, called the personnel center and learned that the case had been forwarded to Widnall. The doctor wrote to Widnall, urging her to release Sean as soon as possible. Widnall responded in mid-September, saying she wanted a second opinion. So Sean went to Lackland Air Force Base, where doctors once again diagnosed him with depression and warned that continued retention would exacerbate his condition. "They felt I should be separated immediately, so what does the Air Force do? They sit on it," Sean says.

Months passed. Finally, Sean's military doctors, upset about his situation and worried about his mental health, contacted the Air Force Times despite warnings from their superiors. "We want to act now rather than wait and then say we should have done something after it's too late," Captain Kenneth Graham told the Times. On March 12, 1997, two days after the story was published, Widnall finally let Sean go.

"I'm thoroughly convinced that if it hadn't been for that Air Force Times reporter, I'd still be rotting there," says Sean, who explains that his depression was situational. "It was all brought on by the academy and the events thereafter. The academy has such control over the Air Force. It's such an old-boy network throughout. If the academy doesn't like someone, it can influence a lot of people far up in the chain of command and subsequently do bad things to people."

In the years since his ordeal, Sean has done well for himself. He returned to medical school at Ohio State, graduated in 2001 and is now doing a residency in radiology. "I should have been practicing by now. This set me back five years," says the 32-year-old, estimating that his family spent more than $100,000 fighting the Air Force.

The Air Force Academy has suffered numerous honor-related scandals over the years, and with each one, the system has been revised. In the early 1960s, seniors who violated the honor code could be given probation or other punishments, but after two cheating episodes later that decade, cadets who were found guilty were asked to resign. Another cheating scandal in 1972 resulted in a review of the honor system by the secretary of the Air Force, which led to the adoption of the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. After yet another case of widespread cheating in 1984, disenrollment became mandatory for juniors and seniors found guilty of honor violations.

But honor scandals don't just plague the AFA: Numerous cadets at the Military Academy at West Point were disenrolled for cheating on exams or class projects in 1951, 1966, 1973 and 1976, and a huge scandal erupted at the Naval Academy in 1993, when 88 midshipmen were declared guilty of cheating on an engineering test.

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