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U.S. NAVAL ACADEMY // Mission: Restore Honor

The bad old days are back again at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Two years ago, a cheating scandal engulfed 133 students and disgraced the proud old school on Chesapeake Bay, home to America's future Navy and Marine officers.

The new crimes are more than a breach of the honor code. Sex. Drugs. An interstate car-theft ring. Some of those straight-backed boys who would have tossed their white hats into the air at graduation this summer instead are being tossed into the brig and thrown out of school.

The string of arrests this month began just days after James Barry, a civilian who teaches ethics at the academy, published a scathing essay in the Washington Post about the crumbling moral underpinnings of the school.

"The academy is plagued by a serious morale problem caused by a culture of hypocrisy, one that tolerates sexual harassment, favoritism and the covering up of problems," he wrote.

Yet the school is trying to teach ethics and responsibility as never before.

In the wake of the cheating scandal, the new admiral in charge, Charles Larson, instituted a Character Development Division to create ethics courses and integrity seminars for the students.

He and academy officers, while fumbling to explain the students' latest exploits, aren't ready to abandon the new system, still being phased in. It's tougher to teach character than to teach someone how to take apart an M-16, the officers say. It takes longer.

"In my opinion," Larson said in a January speech on ethics, "moral integrity is our most important asset and duty as professionals. If it fails, all else fails. There is no sense of outrage equal to that of a public shocked by scandal when we fail to live up to the high standards expected of us."

The Navy's Tailhook scandal. Three U.S. servicemen in Okinawa accused of raping a 12-year-old Japanese schoolgirl. Three white supremacist soldiers accused of killing a black couple in North Carolina.

To be sure, only a handful of the Naval Academy's 4,000 midshipmen have been implicated in the latest charges. But in the past two weeks:

+ A senior was accused of sexually assaulting four different female students. No one will say exactly what he is supposed to have done, but he was thrown into the brig after he was also accused of threatening at least one of the young women who turned him in. He was stripped of his duties as the third highest-ranking midshipman on campus.

+ A freshman staying overnight with a family in Annapolis was accused of fondling their 2-year-old granddaughter.

+ One senior, one academy graduate and three former midshipmen who had been kicked out earlier were charged with running a car-theft ring, importing stolen four-wheel-drive vehicles from New York and selling them with phony titles in Maryland. One of the former students accused had been a ringleader in the cheating scandal.

+ The same day, a senior was convicted in a court martial of selling LSD, one of 24 midshipmen rounded up on drug charges last fall. Four pleaded not guilty and got jail terms of a few months. The fifth is headed to prison for 20 months and must repay his $80,000 education. They were all kicked out of school.

The rest were disciplined for drug use. LSD was their drug of choice because it clears out of the system within a day and is unlikely to show up in a urine test, according to trial testimony.

+ With the academy reeling from bad news, two seniors with exquisitely bad timing scaled the academy wall in the middle of the night Monday and went into Annapolis to tap on a girl's windowpane. She talked to them for a while, and as they crawled back out her bedroom window, her father caught them. They were charged with breaking and entering.

It was the last straw for Larson. He ordered the entire campus to stand down for a week and told the senior class to present him with ideas for improvement. It's the Navy equivalent of being grounded and sent to your room to think about what you've done wrong. Weeknight liberty was canceled, and small groups were to discuss responsibility.

Further investigation is ahead. The Board of Visitors, 12 people appointed by Congress and the White House to oversee the academy, has called a meeting next month to decide whether more needs to be done.

And the top Navy brass, including Navy Secretary John Dalton, has sought a meeting with Larson, who commanded all Navy forces in the Pacific before he came to Annapolis in 1994, assigned to clean up the academy and restore its image.

Midshipmen lead grueling lives, with every moment scheduled from dawn until the bugle blows taps at midnight. College classes. Military training. Sports required for all. They are to spend 26.2 hours a week in academic study and 6.7 hours a night sleeping.

They are overachievers before they arrive. The vast majority ranked in the top 20 percent of their high school classes. They were student presidents, class presidents, club presidents. More than half were in the National Honor Society, 88 percent were in varsity athletics. Each was nominated by a member of Congress. Only one in 10 applicants to the academy was accepted.

They live, all 4,000 of them, in Bancroft Hall, the world's largest dormitory, in tiny rooms with no locks on the doors. Honor system. They gather out front each day at noon _ shoes and swords gleaming in the sun _ and march in to lunch while the band plays Anchors Aweigh and The Halls of Montezuma.

Tourists love it. As a class of enthralled elementary students watched one day last week, a little girl pointed to a female midshipman and exclaimed, "The girl has a sword!"

The little boy next to her must have said something politically incorrect. She turned to him and huffed, "Girls can handle bad weapons, too!"

Women have attended the academy for 20 years _ they are now 14 percent of the students _ and annual student surveys show them almost as happy as men. Larson revived the Women's Midshipman Study Group, which can recommend changes, along with a similar group for minorities.

There is no outward sign that the 150-year-old academy is beleaguered. The trees are leafing after a long, snowy winter, and the pear trees are bursting with white popcorn blossoms. The campus has sparkling blue water on one side and charming, colonial Annapolis on the other.

The midshipmen go briskly about their business, nodding to visitors, maintaining The Walk. Shoulders square, back straight, chin up. It is not quite a swagger but exudes pride.

They oh-so-politely decline to comment on anything that has happened the past weeks, and why shouldn't they? If all goes well for them, the Blue Angels will roar overhead in salute at the end of the year. Their class rings will be christened by water from the seven seas. Graduates will owe five years of military service but will start as officers. They will fly fighter jets, sail ships and subs, command bases. Some will spend a career in the service.

But they are spending four years at the academy under enormous pressure. Even doctors and lawyers train for their specialties after college. The service academies compress everything into four years.

"They're basically college students who happen to wear uniforms on whom we place tremendous demands," said David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

It should be no surprise if the pressure sometimes erupts into crime, but it shouldn't happen often, he said.

"When you get the number of incidents at the Naval Academy that they have had, my sociologist's instinct tells me it's something different than is going on at West Point or the Air Force Academy," Segal said. "Somehow the moral fabric at the Naval Academy is unraveling."

Whether such assessments were ever accurate or fair, officers at the Naval Academy hope at least they are out of date.

"We like to think at this point we are well beyond the hand-wringing, reactive mode and we're at a point in time where we're marching forward, we're developing and implementing some well-thought-out programs that are going to help us address some of these issues," said Col. Dave Vetter, who heads the Character Development Division.

He can't account for the recent arrests, beyond bad luck and coincidence.

"To me, there's no indication that this institution is off course and it's not headed in the right direction under superb leadership," he said.

The real watershed for the Naval Academy was the cheating scandal, which began just before Christmas 1992 and stretched through an agonizing investigation into the spring of 1994. Not only did the academy get a new admiral in charge and a new curriculum in character development, it rewrote the honor code.

To say a midshipman wouldn't lie, cheat or steal had not been enough. The new code elaborates: "Midshipmen are persons of integrity. They stand for that which is right. They tell the truth and ensure that the full truth is known. They do not lie. ..."

What happened was this: A student bought a copy of the final exam for Electrical Engineering 311, a killer course required for all juniors, from a civilian in the copying department. The night before the exam, it spread through Bancroft Hall. Some students knew it was the real test, some thought it was a study guide or sample questions.

When they got caught, they lied. "Lie 'til you die," was their motto. They lied largely to protect each other. They called it loyalty.

Loyalty to classmates was exactly what the academy had taught them.

"We fight as a team, we win as a team, it's extremely important," Vetter said. "The reason men will charge into the withering fire of the enemy's muzzle is not for the flag, not for the commandant of the Marine Corps, not for his colonel _ they do it for their buddy."

Now the academy is trying to teach a more complicated system of loyalty. Buddies, yes, but also loyalty to the ship, the service, the American people, the president and the Constitution.

The highest loyalty is to the truth, Vetter said.

In his constitutional ethics class, the primary case study is the Iran-contra scandal, secretly trading arms for hostages. "That was Ollie North's problem. He got the loyalty to the president confused with loyalty to the constitution," Vetter said.

The training starts when the plebes, or freshmen, arrive for their first summer. The men get their heads shaved. They all learn to salute. And they start to learn about loyalty. At the end of the summer, they are taken to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, "to see firsthand what can happen when misplaced loyalty, blind obedience and lack of concern for human dignity are taken to the extreme," Larson said.

The Naval Academy has begun to equate ethical fitness to physical fitness, something to be developed and maintained, Vetter said.

Ethics will be a required course for all sophomores next year, and ethics is being included whenever it can be worked into English or other classes. The school is also developing a four-year human relations program to emphasize mutual respect, particularly as the Navy continues to integrate women and minorities.

Meanwhile, everyone must attend a 90-minute integrity seminar each month. The midshipmen break into 252 groups of 15 each, with facilitators, to discuss readings from Aristotle or the Bible and talk about right and wrong when there are no sure answers.

This does not come easily to the military, Vetter said.

"Seventy-five to 80 percent of the students are engineers, and they want to know what the right answer is," he said. "They don't want to hear, "Let's talk about, let's debate this, how do you feel about this?'

"

The midshipmen may never have time for late-night bull sessions in the dorm, where civilian college students discuss the meaning of life, but at least once a month for 90 minutes they have a chance to think about it, he said.

Standards of behavior have changed since Vetter was a midshipman 30 years ago. He remembers the drinking, the girlfriends, the cruising, the attitudes. "You know, comments that were made in the hall on gender issues and that sort of thing."

The Navy's Tailhook scandal, which coincided with the academy's cheating scandal, is evidence that some things once accepted are no longer okay.

That might account for some of the violations being reported now at the academy, Vetter said. The activity isn't new, but reporting it is.

"We have some very aggressive training on sexual assault, on date rape _ this week we're doing a class on responsible relationships including the pregnancy policy, that abstinence is a viable alternative _ classes that I didn't get when I was here."

He does not apologize for the high standards and harsh punishments the academy insists upon, no matter how pressured the students feel.

"These are the people to whom we're going to entrust America's sons and daughters, with these awesome weapons with lethal power," he said.

Adm. Larson says the fact that the United States is the only remaining superpower "has profound ethical implications for those of us in the military and government." Whether to intervene in Bosnia, for example, is not a matter of fighting an enemy but a matter of doing what is right.

"This is what should distinguish this institution," Vetter said, "that it develops leaders of character for our nation. I want the young people who come out of this institution to have a better preparation than I did."

Recent problems

+ A senior was accused of sexually assaulting four different female students.

+ A freshman staying overnight with a family in Annapolis was accused of fondling their 2-year-old granddaughter.

+ One senior, one academy graduate and three former midshipmen who had been kicked out earlier were charged with running a car theft ring

+ The same day, a senior was convicted in a court martial of selling LSD, one of 24 midshipmen rounded up on drug charges last fall.

+ Two seniors charged with breaking and entering after crawling through a window to talk to a girl in Annapolis.

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