Sex And Lies

Minot, N.D., is a flat and lonely place. There's not much there, aside from the 150 nuclear-tipped ICBMs buried in the surrounding wheat fields. A young first lieutenant could grow bored and restless, especially if she were the air force's first (and only) female B-52 pilot. Lt. Kelly Flinn believed that dating other pilots would be "unprofessional," so she turned down their advances. Her fellow aviators speculated that the 26-year-old was a lesbian. She drank an occasional beer at Peyton Place, the local pickup bar, but the bartender never saw her there with another man.

She met Marc Zigo at a soccer game. He told her he was a professional soccer player, a navy SEAL and the love of her life. He was none of these; rather, Zigo was a type Kelly Flinn should have recognized from the romance novels she likes to read: an old-fashioned cad. Flinn - who had focused on aeronautical engineering, not boys, after being chosen Outstanding Camper at U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., at the age of 12 - fell hard. Her affair with Zigo, who happened to be married at the time, might have been forgettable. Bars like Peyton Place fill up every night with servicemen accompanied by women not their wives. Flinn could have been just one more lonely young woman unlucky in love. But she had the misfortune of being a highly visible pilot at a time when the military is cracking down on sex in the ranks.

Technically, Kelly Flinn was charged with adultery - a crime in the military - disobedience and deception. Culturally, her case became a battle of imagery, with her side casting her as A Woman Wronged. Long profiles in The Washington Post and The New York Times and two interviews on "60 Minutes" made her a heroine, a victim of the loutish male establishment. Flinn warmed to the role. Her family hired a publicist and created a home page on the Internet. By last week, U.S. senators were pressing the air force to "get real," as Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott put it, and grant Flinn an honorable discharge.

At the Pentagon, the generals quietly glowered - but then struck back. "In the end, this is not an issue of adultery," the air force chief of staff, Gen. Ronald Fogleman, lectured a congressional committee. "This is an issue about an officer entrusted to fly nuclear weapons who lied. That's what this is about." Overnight, the newspaper and TV coverage turned ambivalent, pointing out that Flinn had disobeyed orders, a far worse crime in the military than adultery. Watching Fogleman's testimony on C-Span back in Minot, Flinn understood that the game was up. After a few more hours of agonizing, she cut a deal and took a "general discharge," ending the drama.

The trial that America will not see would have been lurid. Criminal investigators had filed reports on Flinn's sexual appetites, helpfully provided by the duplicitous Zigo. But even though there will be no court-martial, Flinn's story is revealing in a different way. It's hard to find a tale that better illustrates the complexities of integrating women into the ranks than the case of Kelly Flinn. Her ordeal exposes the pitfalls of regulating sexual behavior by haphazard enforcement and media-driven morality.

At the U.S. Air Force Academy, from which she graduated in the top 15 percent of her class, Flinn learned not to complain. When a pair of upperclassmen sexually molested her late one night, Flinn, a nice girl from a proper Georgia family, said nothing. She did protest when someone scrawled an obscenity on her dorm-room door - but regretted speaking up after her entire squadron was grounded for the weekend to punish the graffiti artists. Mostly, though, she played along with the establishment. "I was their show girl," she said. With her blond hair bobbed short, she posed for an air force recruiting film. She took air force Secretary Sheila Widnall for a flight, demonstrating the on-board toilet, which had been jokingly modified by her crew with a flowered shower curtain.

She was at once celebrated and resented. Unwilling to date her fellow officers (people of the same rank are allowed to sleep together), she had sex one night with an enlisted man after a wine-and-cheese party at her small bungalow near the base. "Fraternizing" with a superior or a subordinate is forbidden, but the airman Flinn had sex with was not in her chain of command, so her indiscretion seemed relatively minor.

Zigo was different. He was her first real love, the infatuation she had denied herself through years of outmachoing the men and hitting the books. He was handsome and athletic, though he seemed underemployed coaching soccer at the base rec center. He was also married, and even invited Flinn over to dinner with his wife, who is an airman. But he assured Flinn that his marriage was breaking up.

Two weeks after Flinn began seeing Zigo, in July of last year, his wife found some love letters. "I was shocked," Gayla Zigo later wrote. "How could I compete with her? She had power, both as an officer and as an Academy graduate." Gayla Zigo asked her own first sergeant to speak to Flinn. The sergeant, who was also female, warned Flinn that she was risking her career, and advised that she stay away from Airman Zigo's husband.

Flinn says she did - for a little while. But she went back to Zigo, not realizing that the authorities were looking into the romance. The investigation began as a nasty bit of payback. Flinn had encouraged a friend who had been sexually assaulted by another lieutenant to file a complaint. The lieutenant, who was sentenced to nine months in prison for various sexual offenses, got even by telling investigators about Flinn and Zigo. Questioned at the end of November, Flinn lied twice - under oath. She said her relationship with Zigo was "platonic." She believed she had a pact with Zigo to keep their affair secret.

She didn't know Zigo was telling the air force everything. In vivid detail, he described her sexual preferences and method of birth control. He even drew a map of her bedroom, labeled "Kelly's Where It Happened," so the gumshoes could precisely envision the scene of the crime. In December, after his wife confronted him for hitting on yet another woman, Zigo tried to commit suicide by swallowing sleeping pills. Abandoned by his wife, he washed up on Flinn's doorstep. She took him in.

Flinn knew she was jeopardizing her career. She went to see her commanding officer, Col. Theodore LaPlante. In another time - and perhaps if she had been a man - Flinn might have quietly resolved her problems. Adultery is prohibited in the military because it can create jealousies that undermine unit morale. In the relatively few cases where marital cheating is exposed, commanders have traditionally meted out some punishment - a small fine, say, or a letter of reprimand. Even when the adultery is accompanied by lying or an attempted cover-up, the penalty has commonly stopped short of a full-scale court-martial and dismissal from the service.

Lately, however, the air force has been more strict. Tailhook sent a shock through all branches of the service. In the air force, the number of courts-martial for adultery, while still small, grew from 36 in 1990 to 67 (60 men, 7 women) in 1996. A commander who goes by the book has less freedom these days to handle adultery cases informally.

By all accounts, LaPlante, then the commander of the 23d Bomb Squadron, is a by-the-book officer. A top-rate flier, he is less comfortable handling personnel problems. He was stiff and severe with Flinn when he met her in his office in mid-December. "Don't tell me too much," LaPlante said. "I might be the ultimate hammer." A couple of days later, Flinn was back in his office. This time she was read her rights and received a direct order: stay at least 100 feet away from Marc Zigo. (The air force can't confirm that the first meeting took place.)

Instead, incredibly, she took Zigo home to Georgia to meet her parents. She might have been able to rescue her career if she had obeyed the order, though she would surely have faced some kind of discipline for the adultery and the lies. But as she later said, "I guess I gave up. I figured at least I'd salvage my relationship with Marc."

In late January she discovered she was sleeping with the enemy. Flinn's lawyer discovered that Zigo had ratted to air force investigators back in December. A serious row broke out between the lovers. Zigo, who was on probation in Washington state for assaulting his wife in 1995, became abusive, according to Flinn. She finally called base security to get an MP to escort Zigo from her home.

Flinn's superiors were enraged by her insubordination. The base was buzzing with gossip about her ill-concealed adultery with the husband of an enlisted woman. (Flinn had begun picking up Zigo from work every night at the rec center.) The "hammer" fell on Jan. 28: Flinn was formally charged with adultery (with Zigo), fraternization (with the airman), lying and disobeying an order. If convicted, she faced nine and a half years in prison.

Flinn's family rallied behind her. They hired a top lawyer, Frank Spinner, who had handled many sex cases in military courts, most recently the court-martial of Delmar Simpson, one of the Aberdeen drill sergeants convicted of raping recruits. In turn, Spinner hired a psychologist to produce a sympathetic profile of Flinn. She had been so busy achieving, the psychologist contended, that she had never made time for love. A closet romantic - she is fond of inspirational sayings and books about chivalry - Flinn is also a patriot. Or so she was engagingly described by the reporters for major publications invited to interview her. The Washington Post ended its 3,000-word profile with the scene of her stopping her jeep out of respect when the loudspeakers along Bomber Boulevard at the base crackled with "The Star-Spangled Banner" at evening retreat, the ceremonial lowering of the flag.

The Flinn family insists that it didn't begin the PR wars: the air force had put out a press release detailing the charges against her before the court-martial papers were even filed. But in any case, the Flinns were clearly winning for most of April and May. Senators spoke out. "It's a case of the punishment being greatly disproportionate to the crime," said Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington on the "Today" show.

Flinn's real target in Washington was Sheila Widnall, the first-ever female secretary of the air force. In early May the Flinns thought (mistakenly, it turned out) that Widnall was signaling - through an article in The New York Times - that Flinn should ask for an honorable discharge. Her active-duty career would be over, but she would at least be able to fly for the National Guard or the Air Force Reserve.

Widnall, a former MIT professor, is an expert in weapons systems, not human relations. She was under considerable pressure from the uniformed brass to let the case go forward to trial and its most likely outcome: a dishonorable discharge. Interestingly, the hard-liners included most women in uniform. It is almost unheard of for an officer facing a court-martial to be given an honorable discharge. Making an exception for Flinn, the women argued, would create an uproar over favoritism and seriously set back the cause of women in the ranks.

Reeling from Flinn's PR blitz, the generals counterattacked. Last week Zigo's wife suddenly surfaced with a letter portraying Flinn as an arrogant husband stealer. The letter, released by the air force, disputed Flinn's claim that she believed Zigo was separated. "Less than a week after we arrived on base, Lt. Flinn was in bed with my husband having sex," Gayla Zigo wrote. "On several occasions, I came home from work and found her at my house with Marc . . . She was always in her flight suit flaunting the fact that she was an Academy graduate and the first female bomber pilot. She told me once that she wanted to settle down with someone. I didn't know that somebody was my husband."

General Fogleman, the top-ranked officer in the air force, weighed in the same day on Capitol Hill. When Sen. Tom Harkin accused the air force of looking "ridiculous," an irritated Fogleman cut him off. The stakes were far more serious than adultery, the general said. The air force couldn't afford to have insubordinate liars flying planes full of nuclear weapons. Sitting beside Fogleman was Secretary Widnall. Her silence spoke volumes to Flinn's team, watching C-Span back in Minot.

By 7 o'clock that night, the air force had told Flinn that she would be denied an honorable discharge. Huddled with her parents and two brothers, Flinn tearfully insisted that she wanted to go forward with the trial. But her family and her lawyer knew better. Her sex life would become even more of a public spectacle. Finally, at about 3 a.m., Flinn decided to give up the fight. She would ask instead for a lesser "general discharge," given to soldiers whose negative record outweighs their contributions, but who have not disgraced the uniform.

Even a general discharge was not a sure bet, however. Many of the uniformed brass also wanted to press ahead to trial. Widnall was torn. She was not unsympathetic to Flinn; she thought the pilot was the victim of a cad. Yet she wanted to support her top officers. Looking weary and stressed, Widnall opted for compromise and offered Flinn a deal. She would have to pay back $20,000 in tuition to the Air Force Academy, which requires its graduates to serve for five full years (Flinn has served four). And it's unlikely that she will ever fly in the National Guard. Still, she can probably get a job as a commercial-airline pilot.

Exhausted, Kelly Flinn slept while her lawyer and family discussed the terms on CNN, and her benighted lover, Marc Zigo, appeared before the cameras to sneer that "at no time was a gun [put] to Lieutenant Flinn's head" to have sex. On Friday her family released her letter of resignation to Widnall. The thought of losing her wings, Flinn wrote, "is the cause of my relentless tears." Even as she resigned, she asked "for a second chance." Life may give her one, but not the U.S. Air Force.

Though Flinn's case brought the issue to the fore, the numbers of prosecutions for adultery in the ranks show that men are more likely to face charges.

Courts-Martial Courts-Martial Number of including includ. adultery, personnel adultery per 100,000 Army men 417,507 79 19 women 69,623 2 2.9 Navy men 357,833 15 4.2 women 54,692 0 0 Air Force men 320,182 60 19 women 64,814 7 11

SOURCE: THE PENTAGON, 1996 FIGURES

From the service academies to the front lines, a series of high-profile cases of sexual misconduct has raised serious questions. A sampling:

Annapolis: In 1990, Midshipman Gwen Dreyer reported being hand-cuffed to a urinal by male classmates. She resigned.

Tailhook: Lt. Paula Coughlin and more than 80 other women charged that they were sexually attacked by naval aviators at the 1991 Tailhook convention--an imbroglio that led to the resinations of high-ranking officers.

Love Boat: During the Gulf war 36 female sailors on the navy supply ship Acadia returned home pregnant.

Adm. Richard Macke: In 1995, after U.S. servicemen raped a 12-year-old Japanese girl in a car, he said: "For the price they paid to rent the car they could have had a girl." He was forced to resign.

Aberdeen: In 1996, 19 women trainees filed rape and assault complaints against 20 drill sargeants. Drill Sgt. Delmar Simpson was sentenced to 25 years and dishonorably discharged.

Lt. Col. Karen Tew: Dismissed from the air force for having an affair with an enlisted man, she committed suicide in March.

Army Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney: The army's senior enlisted man was charged with sexual misconduct by a former aide. He denies the allegations and is currently suspended with pay.