American opinion is divided over the way the Air Force handled the case of 1stLt Kelly Flinn. Lt Flinn, an Air Force B-52 bomber pilot, resigned under pressure from the Secretary of the Air Force with less than an honorable discharge because she had an adulterous relationship.
As with the O.J. Simpson case, everyone in the country has an opinion about the outcome. In the U.S. Senate, the majority leader, Trent Lott admonished the Air Force to “get real,” expressing his disagreement with the way the Air Force handled the case.
Those who know that Sen. Lott speaks without the benefit of military experience, and may for that reason discount the value of his counsel, should read Senator Slade Gordon’s (R-Wash) May 7, 1997 senate floor speech.
Sen. Gordon, who served more than twenty years as an Air Force judge advocate, told his senate colleagues, “In this case, clearly, the punishment does not appear to fit the crime.” Then he reminded them than none of the 140 Navy officers involved in the Tailhook incident were court-martialed.
Under a prominent headline, “Flinn Compromise gets Mixed Reviews,” the Montgomery Advertiser published two letters, one written by Major Kathryn Pearce, (Ret.) expressing support for Lt Flinn and another from LtGen Charles G. Cleveland (Ret.), former Air University commander, weighing in on the side of the Air Force. These letters demonstrate the ideological breadth of opinions in the Flinn case.
Maj Pearce wrote about her experience at Uatpoa Air Base in Thailand. She described “Newland,” an Air Force project located outside the air base where prostitutes serviced Air Force men. She pointed out the situation to support her case against the double standard under which men and women must serve. She called for women in the Air Force to be “standing ready to resign until this miscarriage of justice is overturned” and the Air Force eliminates the double standard.
Gen Cleveland views the Flinn case differently. From his perspective, she got exactly what she deserved. The General, who graduated from West Point Military Academy nearly five decades ago, wrote, “It is obvious that the intensive honor code training she received at the Air Force Academy did not take with her.”
Why has this one act of admittedly bad judgment on the part of a 26-year old female brought on such an unprecedented national debate?
Putting the specifics of this case aside, the event raises a number of sensitive issues that remain unresolved in our society. There is no simple answer: The tension in the higher ranks over women serving alongside men in the military is not new. There is yet to be a clear formulation of policy with respect to women serving in uniform as equals with men. Policies vary among the services. In addition, local commanders exercise a great deal of discretion in how they execute policies within their particular service (i.e., Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps).
Many Americans believe that a benign institutional resistance to women serving as full members of the military crashed Lt Flinn’s career. Defense Secretary Cohen needs to identify and eliminate military policy makers, both in and out of uniform, who are not ideologically committed to women serving in the armed forces as equals with men.
During the Gulf War, thousands of female soldiers, airmen and sailors proved spurious the traditional arguments used by male decision makers to keep women from serving in combat.
Lt Kelly Flinn shattered another patriarchal myth: she trained and piloted the B-52 bomber. Not only did she fly the mammoth aircraft; but she also earned the honor of “most distinguished graduate” in her B-52 training school class.
Many women like Lt Flinn made the choice to work within the system to get ahead, rather than fight, protest and be labeled “feminists” (a term that Rush Limbaugh has turned into a slur). This team-player tactic is successful for some, but as women’s issues fade from the limelight, the societal concern for fair treatment for women has also faded. In institutions where change is only superficial, it is easy to backslide into old ways of unequal treatment. This patriarchal resurgence directed at professional military women is not dissimilar to the revival of racism facing minorities, witness the roll back of affirmative action programs and the racial realignment of political parties.
Historically the armed services have led the nation in providing equal opportunity. However, an underlying issue in the Flinn case is equal treatment. No doubt, Lt Flinn deserved punishment for her errors, but was her punishment fair and equal to others, particularly men, who have acted similarly? Clearly, a large number of Americans think not.
Originally Published: 18 June 1997, Montgomery Advertiser