May 23, 1997 in Nation/World

Female Pilot Agrees To Quit Air Force Flinn Takes General Discharge, Avoids Court-Martial

Elaine Sciolino New York Times
 

The country’s first female B-52 pilot has agreed to accept the Air Force’s offer of a general discharge rather than face a court-martial for adultery, lying and other charges.

The decision by the pilot, 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn, 26, is a striking retreat. Only days ago, Flinn had declared that if the Air Force refused to grant her an honorable discharge, she would face the military jury in a courtroom spectacle that neither side wanted. If convicted on all charges, Flinn could have been sentenced to prison for as much as nine years.

But on Wednesday night, the Air Force informed Frank Spinner, Flinn’s civilian lawyer, that Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall would not grant an honorable discharge. Spinner calculated that the best he could get for his client was the general discharge.

Throughout the night, her parents, her two brothers and Spinner pressed Flinn until she reluctantly acquiesced.

At a news conference at the Pentagon, Widnall said Thursday she had decided to grant a general discharge rather than the honorable discharge “to protect the Air Force core values.” Widnall said Flinn’s “lack of integrity” and “disobedience to orders” are more serious to the Air Force than the adultery charges brought against her as a result of an affair with a married man.

With a general discharge, Air Force officials said, Flinn almost certainly would not be allowed to fly in the Air Force Reserve or National Guard and would be required to pay back about $18,000 of the cost of her education at the Air Force Academy - an amount equivalent to a year’s tuition at the institution in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Typically, a general discharge makes it more difficult for a former member of the military to find employment and eliminates all veteran’s benefits. But it is preferable to a dishonorable discharge, known among officers as a dismissal, which could have been an outcome of the case.

Flinn had been charged not only with the highly publicized charge of adultery but also with fraternization - the result of a liaison with an airman - lying in a sworn statement and disobeying a direct order to cease her relationship with a married civilian.

Although Thursday’s result was less than Flinn had hoped for, it ends a lengthy and embarrassing ordeal for a woman who represented a million-dollar-plus investment to the Air Force and who once had been a proud emblem for the service. It also concludes a period of harsh criticism of the Air Force, which had been judged by some members of Congress and many people in the general public as acting more harshly against women who disobey its rules than against men under similar conditions.

Both sides acknowledged Thursday that the final disposition of the case is imperfect but acceptable.

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