May 15, 1997 in Nation/World

Honorable Discharge Considered In Female Pilot’s Adultery Charge

New York Times

Less than a week before the court-martial of the country’s first female B-52 pilot on adultery and other charges, the secretary of the Air Force has told associates she would consider allowing the officer to resign with an honorable discharge, senior Air Force officials said on Wednesday.

Reeling from the negative public reaction to the prosecution of 26-year-old 2nd Lt. Kelly Flinn, the Air Force secretary, Dr. Sheila Widnall, is struggling to find a way to avoid what she anticipates will be the further spectacle of a high-profile court-martial, the officials said.

Lieutenant Flinn, a million-dollar-plus Air Force investment who was hand-picked to fly Widnall in a B-52 last year, would not have to plead guilty to any of the charges against her under Air Force procedures.

Under normal Air Force rules, people facing court-martial are entitled to ask to be given the chance to resign, a procedure known as resignation in lieu of court-martial, or RILO. There is no guarantee that their requests would be granted, and they still might be required to plead guilty to some charge. In these cases an honorable discharge is seldom granted.

What makes Widnall’s position particularly delicate is that under military rules, she cannot formally offer leniency to Flinn in exchange for avoiding a trial the way a prosecutor can in civilian life. Widnall is even prohibited from suggesting such an offer to officers in Flinn’s chain of command.

As the Air Force faces a barrage of criticism that it is unfairly punishing Flinn for committing crimes that it often overlooks, senior Air Force officials have concluded that the Air Force is in a no-win situation if the court-martial goes forward.

“There is some concern the reputation of the Air Force is being unfairly tarnished,” said one senior Air Force official who requested anonymity. “Dr. Widnall would certainly consider the facts in this case, and if the RILO came she would most probably accept it. I can’t necessarily say a discharge would be honorable, but she would certainly consider the ramifications of the range of discharges.”

It was not clear whether the Air Force was trying to send a signal to Flinn in order to encourage her to make a deal, the terms of which she would not know in advance. When asked if the Air Force was trying to use The New York Times as a conduit for such a message, the senior official said, “Absolutely not.”

linn is facing charges of adultery, fraternization, disobeying a direct order and making a false sworn statement. Even though she has admitted at least some of the charges on national television, she has questioned whether the crimes warrant a court-martial and has not yet entered a plea.

Under military rules, only Flinn can initiate a request that she resign rather than face court-martial, but she has not done so.

It is highly unusual for the Air Force to accept a resignation on charges like these with an honorable discharge, and anything other than that carries a stigma that could make it difficult if not impossible for Lieutenant Flinn to get security clearances in the U.S. government and certain jobs in civilian life.

“From history I know a lot of resignations haven’t been accepted in cases like this, and even when they are, they are usually with an otherthan-honorable condition,” said Lieutenant Flinn in a brief telephone interview from Minot, N.D. “I don’t think that is the right thing to do.” Still, she added, “That option always exists.”

The Air Force approved 10 out of 23 requests for resignation instead of courts-martial in 1994, 10 of 49 requests in 1995 and seven of 38 in 1996.

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