The cadet honor process: Cadets hold each other accountable to longstanding code

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Honor is the common tie binding all Air Force officers together and for many, the pathway to honor started here, at the Academy.

"Honor is the bedrock, the very essence of what we do here," said Center for Character and Leadership Development assistant director Lt. Col. Hans Larsen

The Academy's first class, the Class of '59, adopted an honor code to hold cadets accountable to standards befitting an officer. This code, "We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does," is inscribed on the west wall of the terrazzo in the cadet area.

Since the Academy opened its doors to develop leaders of character, cadets have held each other accountable to this code through the creation of the honor process, a series of investigations and inquiries to determine if honor violations have been made and to recommend courses of action to the commandant of cadets.

Larsen supports that honor process, ensuring while the cadets maintain leadership positions in the process, their actions reflect the intent of the process.

"It's a very rigorous process with a lot of checks and balances to ensure we don't take an allegation lightly," he said. "I have a lot of faith in the system because I see it work."

Cadet 1st Class JayP Fullam, wing honor chairman, said the process is a first step rather than a last resort because there is no place for lying, stealing or cheating at the Air Force Academy and in the Air Force.

"The Air Force and the civilian world hold us to a high standard," he said. "And, that all starts with us holding each other accountable for our actions."

The process begins when one individual - known as the initiator - suspects a cadet of violating the honor code and then an informal and a formal clarification take place. The informal occurs first, when the initiator explains to the cadet what they suspect and asks if they misunderstood the situation. This is often the case and the process ends before it even truly begins. If the initiator is still uncertain, the process moves to a formal clarification, a documented inquiry. If at this point the cadet admits to a violation, the process moves to the Cadet Sanction Recommendation Panel.

"Because a person is already admitting to the violation, we're really not trying to figure out if they're guilty so much as looking for the situation surrounding the incident,"

This why the CSRP only has three members in it, Larsen said.

"One of our wing honor cadets, one of our group honor cadets and then a squadron honor cadet, is involved," he said.

If, however, the cadet denies a violation, they go before the Wing Honor Board, administered by nine cadets chosen from the Cadet Wing. These cadets - with advice from a board legal adviser - must reach a two-thirds majority vote in favor of guilt for a cadet's violation to be proven. The Wing Honor Board brings in witnesses to question for further understanding.

"If you go to the Wing Honor Board and you're proven guilty, you'll go to the Wing Honor Board Sanction Recommendation Panel."

In both cases, the sanction recommendation panels ultimately recommend courses of action to Commandant of Cadets, Brig. Gen. Stephen Williams. Factors such as admittance of guilt, the cadet's seniority and the severity of the violation are all taken into account. From there, the commandant will decide on the course of action to take.

"It's presumptive disenrollment if you violate the honor code," Larsen said. "However, the commandant can suspend their disenrollment to place them on probation."

Honor probation is a six month process during which a cadet is mentored by a senior officer of their choosing, a volunteer squadron professional ethics advisor and members of their officer and cadet chain of command.

"A lot of the cadets who partake in that program will tell you they almost wish everybody had to do honor probation because it really helps them grasp the concept of living honorably," Larsen said. "The cadets on probation are also required to write essays, give presentations to their squadron and complete 66 journaling projects. So that's a rigorous process where it's very demanding on them but they grow significantly from it, because they dig deep into their heart and say, 'what am I truly about?'"

Once cadets finish honor probation, many go on to do great things at the Academy and the Air Force at large, according to Larsen.

Fullam believes one reason he was chosen to be wing honor chairman is because of his own experience with honor probation.

"I think I was picked because of my genuine interest in the honor code and system, which stemmed from my six months of honor probation I accomplished during my three degree year at the Academy," he said.

Larsen said the honor code plays a huge part in the rehabilitation of cadets (like Fullam) and in the foundation of becoming a leader of character. Developing leaders of character is not only the goal of honor probation, but of the Academy itself.

"Our Airman's Creed says, 'I am an American Airman,'" he said. "It talks about being 'my nation's sword and shield, its sentry and avenger.' And that's a lot of power - when the country puts a sword in our hand, they have to trust us to not use it wrongly. And so when I cheat, steal or lie, or allow that to happen, I'm not trustworthy. And you can't trust me to bear that sword and protect you. Every cadet that comes here has sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution. They are Airmen first, students second. So we have to trust they're going to protect us like they say they will. That's really what the honor process is about."

Over 100 cases are filed with the committee every year out of a cadet population of more than 4,000, according to Larsen. Out of these claims, roughly 50 percent are substantiated. While cheating is the most common violation, Larsen said the majority of those suspected of violations are in their first or second years at the Academy, which he said proves emphasizing the honor code truly affects cadets as they progress through the Academy.

That process is what keeps cadets here striving not only for a life free from lying, cheating or stealing, but to fulfill the honor oath adopted by cadets in 1984. At the beginning of every academic year, cadets who have graduated Basic Cadet Training stand with senior cadets' on Stillman Field and renew their oath to live a life committed to honor befitting an officer.