Scarlet Letters

Aug. 1, 1997

Much of the news media–abetted by a host of political figures and activists–succeeded in making the Air Force look ridiculous in what was depicted as the “adultery” issue.

At the center of the story was Lt. Kelly Flinn, the Air Force’s first female B-52 copilot, who faced interrelated charges of adultery with the husband of an enlisted woman, lying under oath, disobeying a direct order, and fraternization in an earlier affair with an enlisted man.

The Air Force declined at first to discuss specifics of the case publicly because a court-martial was impending. In the meantime, Flinn went to the national news media and got a sympathetic reception. The coverage focused on the adultery aspect and said little about the more important charges. Flinn’s conduct was presented as “an affair of the heart.”

There was even a “Kelly Flinn Legal Defense Fund Home Page” on the Internet. (Click here for “I want to help Kelly.” Click here for “I want to send Kelly e-mail.” ) Members of Congress and others rushed forward to stand by her side. She also fared quite well in public opinion polls.

The case continued to headline the national news, and on May 29, Flinn left the Air Force with a general discharge in lieu of court-martial. A week later, it was disclosed that Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, the leading contender for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had had an adulterous affair 13 years previously.

The uproar from Flinn supporters was overwhelming. They professed to see no difference in the two cases despite the charges against Flinn. On June 9, Ralston withdrew from consideration.

That was not the end of it, though. The myth has taken root that the Air Force prosecutes adultery alone, that it unfairly singles out women for prosecution, and that Kelly Flinn was treated badly.

Adultery by itself is not a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It is prosecuted only when “the conduct of the accused was to the prejudice of good order and discipline of the armed forces or was of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.”

It is further specified that, under Article 134 of the Code, “almost any irregular or improper act on the part of a member of the military service could be regarded as prejudicial [to good order and discipline] in some indirect or remote sense; however, this article does not include those distant effects. It is confined to cases in which the prejudice is reasonably direct and palpable.”

In the Air Force last year, there were 67 court-martial cases involving adultery. Sixty of those accused were men. Seven were women. Short of willful misunderstanding, it is difficult to perceive that the Air Force is enforcing some puritanical code of sexual behavior or that there has been bias against women.

In a signed column in Newsweek June 16, Kelly Flinn claimed that she was the victim of a “double standard” in the matter of “consensual sex” with a civilian soccer coach, Marc Zigo–she did not mention any of the other charges–and said that no one in her organization at Minot AFB, N. D., attempted to talk with her before lowering the boom.

In actuality, Flinn had at least two official warnings. In August 1996, she received a complaint on behalf of Amn. Gayla Zigo, with whose husband Flinn was having the affair. It was delivered to Flinn by Airman Zigo’s first sergeant. In December, Flinn’s commander gave her a direct order to stay away from Marc Zigo. She chose to disobey the order and took Zigo home with her at Christmas to meet her parents.

As Newsweek acknowledged, “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.)”

Flinn minimizes the disparity of her own rank and Airman Zigo’s because they were in different units. Barbara Lerner was more to the point in the Wall Street Journal, noting that “Lieutenant Flinn’s rank gave her the power to command her lover’s wife to salute whenever their paths crossed, as they inevitably would” at Minot.

It does no one any good to misconstrue what happened or to fabricate myths about it.

This was not the equivalent of an office romance gone wrong, as some of Flinn’s supporters would have us believe. Nor was it just an instance of adultery. Surely it does not take too much imagination to see that Air Force officers cannot be allowed to disobey orders, lie in sworn statements, or undercut military order and discipline.

Selection of the Flinn case as a feminist issue is insulting, not only to the Air Force but also to Air Force women who take their responsibilities seriously and whose service is a credit to themselves and to the force.

In the long run, misrepresenting the Kelly Flinn affair does not even work to the advantage of the cause advocates who have made it a rallying point, because it does not add up to much unless the facts are manipulated and sensationalized. It speaks for itself that commentators and activists resort to precisely such tactics to keep the issue alive.