WASHINGTON — Is 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn, a once-rising star of the new Air Force and the first woman to pilot a B-52 bomber, facing a harsh and unjust punishment for falling in love with the wrong man?
Politicians are rushing to her defense and the public appears to be taking her side. Yet an examination of her case suggests that her claims of unfair treatment are still far from proved.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 24, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 5 National Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Air Force Base--An article in the May 22 editions of The Times gave an incorrect location for Keesler Air Force Base. It is in Biloxi, Miss.
Indeed, experts in military law say that the Air Force decision to court-martial her is consistent with its treatment of other officers who first broke rules regarding sexual conduct, then lied about their behavior or disobeyed a commander's orders.
"This is not an unusual case. I have been involved in 24 cases in the last few years of senior Air Force officers who were court-martialed for adultery and fraternization and lying about it. But you haven't heard about them because those cases weren't considered newsworthy," said Duke University law professor Scott Silliman, who retired recently as a senior lawyer in the Air Force command.
A step-by-step analysis of Flinn's case shows that she ignored repeated warnings from at least three Air Force officials to stop her affair with the husband of an enlisted female airman, effectively eliminating her opportunities to end the matter without damage to her career.
Most significantly, as she has acknowledged, she lied to her superiors about the romance and disobeyed their orders to stop it.
"It's the willfulness that makes this case serious in the military's eyes," said Charles W. Gittins, a military justice lawyer in Alexandria, Va. "It's only rarely that [commanders] see an officer who willingly and knowingly violates the rules. But when they do, they deal with it sternly."
At the same time, the experts and some military officials acknowledged that there is blame to go around in this drama of heartbreak and periled ambition.
Since Flinn began her love affair at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota last summer, Air Force officials have missed repeated opportunities that could have brought the 26-year-old Air Force Academy graduate in line without the drastic step of a career-ending court-martial, which also may inflict long-lasting damage on the service's reputation.
The Flinn case has spotlighted another failure by the military: to explain to an outside civilian world why it needs to prohibit adultery and intimacy between the ranks and to enforce its rules by examining private lives and to demand truthful answers about intimate conduct.
To the uniformed services, such rules are necessary to keep discipline and harmony, to ensure that all troops will obey orders under combat conditions. In this case, Air Force officials said, Flinn's offense was not simply one of adultery but of carrying on an affair with the spouse of an enlisted woman on base. This kind of affair, far from being a strictly private matter, can disrupt an entire organization, they said.
To many civilians in a peaceful age, such rules on conduct are offensive anachronisms--as perhaps suggested by a new poll released Wednesday by Maricopa Research Inc. It showed that 65% of Americans believe Flinn should get an honorable discharge.
The clash of cultures has been apparent since the court-martial charges came to light in February. Many civilians have seen the case foremost as the Air Force trying to drum out an exemplary performer whose romantic violations would not bring a traffic ticket elsewhere.
But for the military, it has been about lying and disobeying orders. According to the allegations, Flinn signed a sworn statement last November saying that she had not had sexual relations with Marc Zigo, the married soccer coach at Minot Air Force Base. A month later, as she acknowledged, she disobeyed a direct order from her squadron commander, Lt. Col. Theodore LaPlante, forbidding her to have any contact with Zigo, even through an intermediary.
The military justice system allows wide latitude to commanding officers to deal with infractions in the ranks and in the vast majority of cases adultery and fraternization are handled with far milder means than court-martial. Sixty men and seven women were court-martialed by the Air Force for adultery last year, but hundreds were disciplined privately by commanders using such means as letters of reprimand, fines or temporary loss of liberty--or a simple chewing-out.
But far more serious are the cases of service members who break the rules and then lie about it or otherwise try to conceal what they have done.
And officers who break the rules and then try to cover up are treated far more seriously than enlisted ranks "because they are believed to have a far, far greater responsibility," said Gittins.