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Strike One, You're Out!

Air Force cadets busted on drinking charges may lose their careers.

David Ryan Urton, a 21-year-old cadet at the United States Air Force Academy, faces possible disenrollment and a $100,000 fine for taking beer to an off-campus party attended by underage cadets.

This is the second example in as many days of how the academy is compensating for past indiscretions. In January, female cadets who'd been sexually assaulted first went public with their charges that the academy let their attackers avoid punishment and graduate while they faced retribution and, in some cases, disenrollment ("The War Within," January 30). Many of the rape victims said that after they'd told academy officials of the assaults, they themselves were punished for drinking or violating other academy rules. But now, after almost twelve months of public pressure and intense scrutiny -- including an Air Force investigation which found that 40 percent of the 142 sexual assaults reported at the academy since 1993 involved alcohol -- some people wonder whether the punishment pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

In March, Air Force Secretary James Roche drafted the Agenda for Change, a set of reforms intended to make the academy a safer and fairer place for female cadets. According to the Agenda, sexual-assault victims are to be granted full amnesty from academy discipline if they were breaking any rules at the time of an assault. But the academy has not been so forgiving of other cadets.

This summer, cadets who said they'd been disenrolled on trumped-up honor charges predicted that the academy would soon go even further to make examples of code-violating cadets, in an effort to convince the public that it doesn't tolerate bad behavior ("Honor Rolled," July 17, 2003). "The Air Force Academy must bolster those processes and systems that guide honorable conduct, of which discipline for infractions is an integral component," the Agenda for Change states.

The Agenda calls for zero tolerance of alcohol infractions, and this fall, the academy issued a new policy stating that underage drinkers may be disenrolled rather than placed on probation. The policy is even harsher on older cadets who supply liquor to minors. "In the absence of extreme mitigating circumstances, a cadet who provides alcohol to someone who is not legally authorized to consume it...will be recommended for disenrollment," stated Brigadier General Johnny Weida, the new commandant of cadets, in a September memo to cadets.

Nineteen-year-old cadet Christina Fifer, who recently turned herself in for taking a sip of whiskey, is now in trouble not only for drinking, but for refusing to obey a direct order from her commander to name the friend who gave her the liquor. Last week, Fifer told the Associated Press that she'd reported herself because she believed in the academy's honor code, which states that cadets won't lie, steal or cheat -- or tolerate those who do.

Now Urton, an academy junior involved in another incident involving underage drinking, is looking at the same fate.

Neither cadet should be disenrolled, argues Captain Michael Freimann, an academy defense attorney representing both Fifer and Urton.

On September 27, Urton and two fellow cadets, both twenty years old, went to a Colorado Springs party thrown by civilians in their mid-twenties. Urton brought a case of beer, which he put in the refrigerator. Although the other two cadets were drinking through the night, Urton says he never handed them a beer and doesn't know what they were consuming, since the fridge was stocked with drinks that other people had brought.

On their way into the party, Jonas Bray, one of the cadets, dropped an empty McDonald's bag on a car owned by a civilian party-goer. Irate that someone had left litter on his vehicle, the car's owner went looking for the culprit and then punched Bray in the face. They took the fight outside, and nine of the car owner's buddies jumped in. Urton tried to defend Bray, but the two cadets were no match for the ten older guys.

The fight finally broke up sometime after midnight, and the two cadets called another cadet for a ride. (The third cadet stayed at the party.) That cadet drove Urton and Bray to a nearby hotel. Alarmed by the sight of their bruised and bloodied faces, the hotel receptionist called Colorado Springs police. Although Urton and Bray declined to press charges against their assailants, the cops called the academy to report the incident.

After that, an Air Force officer picked up the two cadets and took them to the on-base hospital, where the academy's security forces questioned them. But they didn't want to know about the fight; they wanted to know if the cadets had been drinking and where they'd gotten the alcohol. Urton admitted taking beer to the party; Bray said he hadn't received any alcohol directly from Urton.

"Alcohol had nothing to do with the fight itself," Freimann points out, adding that Urton, who'd consumed two to three beers that night, wasn't even intoxicated.

But that didn't matter to the academy, which charged Urton with willfully providing alcohol to minors. On October 17, Weida determined that Urton was guilty and ordered him to forfeit half his pay for two months, remain on base for sixty days and be put on probation. In the past, such punishment might have sufficed for such an infraction. But in keeping with the academy's new crackdown on alcohol, Urton was also ordered before a hearing officer on November 19. Two weeks later, the hearing officer rendered another guilty verdict.

The disposition of Urton's case now rests with the academy's legal department, which will recommend to superintendent Lieutenant General John Rosa that Urton be retained at the academy on probation or that he be disenrolled. If Urton is discharged, he'll either have to serve two years' enlisted time or pay back the government for the cost of his education thus far, which amounts to approximately $100,000. (Bray and the other cadet who went to the party with Urton were disciplined for alcohol consumption but are not facing disenrollment.)

In a memo sent to the academy's legal department on December 9, Freimann argues that two mitigating circumstances should prevent Urton from being discharged. First, Urton never willfully provided alcohol to minors. "At most, he was negligent," the attorney says. And second, Urton was beaten by ten men. States Freimann: "I have serious concerns about the priorities demonstrated by our police if they, for all intents and purposes, ignore the fact that two cadets were badly beaten all in the name of curtailing underage drinking."

Michael Bray, cadet Bray's father, has another concern. He says that the party took place at the home of an academy sponsor. The Cadet Sponsor Program is designed to pair cadets with a host or sponsor family who will "provide positive adult role models and give them a place to relax away from the Cadet Wing," according to the academy. The sponsor parents weren't home at the time, Michael Bray says, and the young man who instigated the fight was a friend of the sponsor's son. The academy could not confirm where the party took place.

Pam Ancker, spokeswoman for the academy, says she cannot comment on specific cases. "Each case is looked at based on its own merits and the cadet's record," she explains. Before this incident, Urton was a good cadet with just over thirty demerits, for things Freimann describes as "small cadet infractions." (It's not uncommon for juniors to have as many as a hundred demerits.)

Until Urton's case is decided, cadets are left wondering how far the crackdown will go. "If you have a perfect cadet who is about to graduate," Freimann says, "is that worth giving him a general discharge and making him pay back $150,000?"

Urton, who's from Central Point, Oregon, has always wanted to serve his country. But now he might have to rethink those plans -- and all because of a case of beer. "I feel like my dreams have been taken away," he says.

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