Air Force Prosecution of Female Officer for Adultery Reveals Double Standard

The first woman in the U.S. Air Force qualified to fly the B-52 bomber, Kelly Flinn was charged with adultery for having sex with an enlisted woman’s husband and then lying to superiors about it and ignoring direct orders to desist. The threat that Flinn, an accomplished and respected pilot, would face imprisonment for consensual sex suggested a double standard for female service members, outraging many, including members of Congress. Instead of being court-martialed, Flinn received a general discharge from the Air Force.

Summary of Event

First Lieutenant Kelly Flinn was no stranger to publicity or U.S. Air Force regulations when she became the focus of a military sex scandal in 1996-1997. The youngest of five children, Flinn grew up in Missouri and Georgia as an exemplar of the so-called all-American tomboy. At the age of sixteen, after attending Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, she decided on an aviation career. Following high school, she won appointment to the U.S. Air Force Air Force Academy, U.S. Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1989. The rigorous training, discipline, and male-oriented ethos at the academy came as a shock to her, yet she persisted and became a top-ranking cadet. She also won two coveted overseas training assignments before graduating. During postacademy flight training, her first choice of aircraft for permanent assignment was the B-52 bomber, a massive plane equipped to carry nuclear payloads. [kw]Air Force Prosecution of Female Officer for Adultery Reveals Double Standard (May 20, 1997)
Flinn, Kelly
Air Force, U.S.;and Kelly Flinn[Flinn]
Zigo, Marc
Widnall, Sheila
Widnall, Sheila
Flinn, Kelly
Air Force, U.S.;and Kelly Flinn[Flinn]
Zigo, Marc
Widnall, Sheila
Widnall, Sheila
[g]United States;May 20, 1997: Air Force Prosecution of Female Officer for Adultery Reveals Double Standard[02810]
[c]Military;May 20, 1997: Air Force Prosecution of Female Officer for Adultery Reveals Double Standard[02810]
[c]Women’s issues;May 20, 1997: Air Force Prosecution of Female Officer for Adultery Reveals Double Standard[02810]
[c]Sex crimes;May 20, 1997: Air Force Prosecution of Female Officer for Adultery Reveals Double Standard[02810]
[c]Law and the courts;May 20, 1997: Air Force Prosecution of Female Officer for Adultery Reveals Double Standard[02810]
[c]Space and aviation;May 20, 1997: Air Force Prosecution of Female Officer for Adultery Reveals Double Standard[02810]
[c]Politics;May 20, 1997: Air Force Prosecution of Female Officer for Adultery Reveals Double Standard[02810]

Air Force first lieutenant Kelly Flinn before a pretrial hearing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, in May, 1997.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

During the 1990’s, the U.S. armed forces was under intense pressure to incorporate women into combat support roles. Flinn’s assignment to fly B-52s was widely publicized as part of this new direction for the military. Flinn reported for duty at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, the B-52 fleet’s home base, in October, 1995. The base is on a remote, desolate prairie, and there were few amenities either on base or in the nearby town. According to Flinn’s autobiography Proud to Be (1997), she arrived in Minot with the hope of making a life for herself there, and to meet a special man with whom to develop a serious relationship. Even though she had spent the prior few years studying and working in a mostly male environment, Flinn had tried to be “one of the guys,” developing only a few buddy-type friendships. She probably was less prepared than most twenty-four-year-old single women for the hazards and duplicities of the dating scene.

Unfortunately, social life at Minot seemed to revolve around drinking and sexual games. At least that was the impression that Flinn received. There were certainly few other recreations available for single, action-oriented young adults. Flinn fell into one dubious situation when she threw a wine-cellar party. At the party she had a sexual encounter with Colin Thompson, a senior enlisted airman. Both were apparently drunk at the time. The Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits fraternization, that is, relations between an officer and an enlisted person, even if the persons in question come from different commands. Afterward, Flinn mostly shrugged off her encounter with Thompson (an encounter that would be included as part of the charges against her).

Most of Flinn’s leisure time, however, was devoted to soccer. An avid soccer player since childhood, she joined the base soccer team, which was coached by a civilian named Marc Zigo. (He had claimed college and professional soccer experience, which later proved false.) Zigo was charming and smooth and Flinn fell for him. He seemed to be equally smitten. Zigo was at Minot with his wife, Gayla, who was an enlisted airman at the base. Zigo told Kelly that the two were now legally separated. Although that remark was not true, the marriage was stormy. Gayla threw her husband out of their house after she found some of Flinn’s letters to him. Zigo threatened suicide, and he pleaded with Flinn to let him stay with her, as he had nowhere else to go.

Meanwhile, base security police began investigating both Flinn and Zigo, based on reports of their relationship from a lieutenant against whom Flinn had testified in an unrelated case. Flinn and Zigo were called in separately and questioned. Flinn denied any sexual component to their relationship. Shortly afterward she regretted this denial. Following protocol, she told Lieutenant Colonel Ted LaPlante, her commanding officer, that she wanted to revise her statement to police. LaPlante knew nothing about the charges but refused to listen to Flinn, saying he might eventually be called on to adjudicate the case. Flinn would remain on record as having lied in an official investigation. Two days after Zigo moved into her place, Flinn was handed a written order forbidding her from any contact with Zigo, even if through a third party. Disobeying the order would have left her homeless.

Flinn followed LaPlante’s advice to seek legal counsel, but both Air Force attorneys who took her case were stationed elsewhere and unable to devote time to the issue. Meanwhile, Flinn was slowly realizing that Zigo was moody, dishonest, and manipulative—the classic profile of an abusive man. She was still partly in love with him, and he played on her sympathies, keeping her from making a clean break from him. The fall of 1996 started out full of promise for Flinn, with her piloting achievements drawing additional plaudits from superiors and the public. Now things were changing drastically, moving faster than she realized. Despite the mounting charges against her, Flinn assumed that she would be able to negotiate for an Article 15 administrative punishment. Adultery cases usually led to Article 15 reprimands. This would stall her career but allow her to remain flying.

In a shocking twist of events, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, on February 21, 1997, published a news story about Flinn facing court-martial. Flinn knew nothing of the pending action, nor did her commanding officer and most others on base. Flinn now realized she was facing a lengthy prison sentence. She hired a civilian attorney to work with her military lawyers, who released Flinn’s side of the story to the press. Congressional hearings were called, and several lawmakers expressed the opinion that the Pentagon needed, in U.S. senator Trent Lott’s words, to “get real” about fraternization. Zigo had long since moved out of Flinn’s home, and the explosive case was working its way up to the secretary of the Air Force, Sheila Widnall. Flinn asked her superiors for an honorable discharge instead of going through a court-martial. The court-martial convened on May 20.

The prosecution came prepared with copious documentation, but Flinn’s lawyers obtained a delay in the proceedings until Widnall decided on Flinn’s discharge request. In testimony to the U.S. Congress, Air Force chief of staff Ronald R. Fogelman argued forcefully that the case was not about sex but rather about lying, disobeying orders, and conduct unbecoming an officer. Widnall denied the honorable discharge request. Flinn wanted to fight her case in the court-martial, convinced that with the overdrawn charges and Zigo’s many lies, she would be exonerated. The consensus of her family and attorneys was that the cards would be stacked against her in a trial. After a tearful vigil, she took their advice and requested a general discharge, which was granted. Flinn’s ordeal was over, but so was her career in the Air Force.


The U.S. military did not emerge unscathed from the controversy. The most immediate effect was upon the fortunes of General Joseph Ralston, who had been up for appointment as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of Flinn’s court-martial. On June 5, 1997, stories appeared in major newspapers about Ralston’s reported affair with a civilian woman about thirteen years earlier. Ralston was separated from his wife prior to divorce at the time of the affair, and his lover was a civilian. The House of Representatives’ Women’s Caucus argued that confirming Ralston would confirm a double standard in the military. General Ralston withdrew his nomination and retired.

The case also called attention to military standards for personal behavior that were increasingly at odds with sociocultural attitudes outside the service. Adultery seldom is prosecuted, even in states where it remains a crime. Widespread acceptance of marital separation and divorce also has blurred definitions of adultery by putting those waiting for a final divorce decree into a sort of limbo of marital status. Efforts like General Fogelman’s to convince the public that the case was really about “good order and discipline” went awry. The phrase meant little to civilians. While command status—actual or potential—does impose certain responsibilities, the Air Force failed to make the case that Flinn’s behavior posed a danger to the nation. The military did not change its rules afterward, but its inept handling of the case resulted in a public relations fiasco. The gap between military and civilian views of sex and sexuality thus persisted, to surface again in the future over related issues. Flinn, Kelly
Air Force, U.S.;and Kelly Flinn[Flinn]
Zigo, Marc
Widnall, Sheila
Widnall, Sheila

Further Reading

  • Bumiller, Elisabeth. “Flying Solo.” Good Housekeeping, January, 1998. Based on an interview with Flinn, who is depicted as wary and unsettled after her ordeal but also as a person trying to build a new life.
  • Burke, Carol. Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-and-Tight: Gender, Folklore, and Changing Military Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. Study of how conflict arises from the integration of women into previously all-male military units.
  • “Double Standards, Double Talk.” The New York Times, June 6, 1997. An editorial denouncing the Air Force’s plan to court-martial Kelly Flinn as a double standard against female service members charged with adultery.
  • Flinn, Kelly. Proud to Be: My Life, the Air Force, the Controversy. New York: Random House, 1997. Flinn’s own life story and apologia that includes a focus on her career with the Air Force.
  • Fogelman, Ron. “A Question of Trust, Not Sex.” Newsweek, November 24, 1997. The Air Force’s position on Flinn’s case is presented by the Air Force chief of staff in this magazine article.

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