Honor Rolled

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

Extensive congressional hearings have been held on the topic, including a military-academy-wide investigation after the 1993 incident, which resulted in the 1995 General Accounting Office report. And now, in the wake of the biggest sexual-assault scandal in the Air Force Academy's history, the honor code is again front and center.

According to the Agenda for Change, a set of policy directives released by Air Force Secretary James Roche in March, "The Air Force Academy must bolster those processes and systems that guide honorable conduct, of which discipline for infractions is an integral component. The Academy must ensure cadets understand and exercise the spirit of these values in the context of their future in the Air Force.

"The climate we strive to achieve at the Air Force Academy is one in which cadets take appropriate action to deter, stop, or report the criminal actions of a few that sully the reputation of themselves, their fellow cadets and the United States Air Force," the Agenda continues. "Character is a requirement for a practitioner of the profession of arms in the US Air Force. For this reason, we place special emphasis on the 'toleration clause' of the Cadet Honor Code. It must be made clear that loyalty should never be confused with excessive tolerance, and that covering up another cadet's criminal activity cannot be viewed as loyalty to a comrade. Ignoring or covering up illegal activity among our peers is to protect one who has violated his or her own loyalty to the institution and his or her fellow cadets. Active duty officers who oversee and provide advice to cadets about the administration of the honor code should assure compliance with its spirit."

That language concerns former AFA defense attorney Williams, who wonders whether the honor system will become even broader -- potentially placing more cadets at risk of honor charges -- as the academy tries to show the public it doesn't tolerate sexual assault or any other unbecoming conduct.

"I hoped the Agenda for Change would get to the root of the problem at the Air Force Academy," says Williams, who, in addition to Josh Moynihan, also represented alleged rape victim Jessica Brakey. "To me, the root of the problem was that some commanders at the academy were allowed to take the law into their own hands and do whatever they wanted. So how do you stop that? You establish procedural rules, and you follow them to the letter. Because the academy is under fire, it looks like they're going to get more subjective with the honor code. They're suggesting that the procedural rules don't necessarily matter -- that it's the spirit of the code that matters. But what does that mean, and how do you interpret that on a day-to-day basis?"

Marcus Durham, a senior cadet at the academy and the deputy Wing Honor Board chairman who leads a lot of the honor lessons, reinforces the philosophy that it is the spirit of the code they want students to master. "After we've told [cadets] this is the letter of the code, these are the precepts...we try to teach them, okay, this is what we tell you not to do, but this is what you should be doing," he explains. "So instead of not lying, stealing, cheating, tolerating, we say be honest, be respectful, be fair, support each other. You know, duty first. And we tell them that, you know, hey, if you're living by the positive principles of the code, you're living under the spirit of the code, because you're always trying to do the right thing. If you're trying to follow the letter of the code, you're always trying to get around things."

Does that mean the code will be applied more strictly in light of recent events? "No matter what procedure you're trying to implement, no matter what environment you're trying to operate in, if you don't have people who have a sense of right and wrong, if you don't have men and women of strong character who have a sense of honor, no procedure will work," Brigadier General Weida says. "So you could say, I think, in a very real sense, that the honor code underpins everything we do here, and the honor code underpins the Agenda for Change, and the Agenda for Change will not be effective if we don't have honorable men and women implementing that Agenda for Change."

The academy offers extensive honor education through its Center for Character Development, which was formed after a rash of rape and sexual assaults were reported in 1993. Cadets receive approximately 254 hours of honor-related instruction during basic training and take courses on it throughout the year, most of it provided by the 164 honor-committee cadets. In addition, upperclassmen are required to participate in character-enrichment seminars and to attend the annual National Character and Leadership Symposium.

But understanding what it means to be honorable and the implications of violating the code are very different from understanding how to mete out justice. "Like jurors in any criminal or civilian court, cadets on the honor board may have a tendency to look at the accused party like, 'They're here, so they must have done something.' They're told there's a presumption of innocence, but can anyone get over their biases? That's challenging in any forum, but it's especially challenging at the Air Force Academy," says Williams, who graduated from the University of Richmond law school in 1998 and worked as a prosecutor at Peterson Air Force Base for two years before joining the defense team at the academy. He left the academy in February after his four-year Air Force commitment ended, and has since gone into private practice in Colorado Springs.

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