He'll miss today's graduation, but Mid is glad to be reinstated

May 25, 1994|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Writer

When his former classmates are tossing their caps into the air today, Erik Jilson will be packing his uniforms into an old Volvo and heading south to Annapolis, eager to complete an education cut short by the Naval Academy's largest cheating scandal.

Mr. Jilson was among six midshipmen recommended for dismissal in April 1993 for their role in the scandal. But last month he and four others who came forward early and admitted their involvement were readmitted.

"I don't need to see the caps thrown up -- at least not this year," the 23-year-old midshipman said from his home in Cape Cod, Mass. "I'm going to graduate eventually; that's all that matters."

Of the 134 midshipmen implicated in the scandal, 24 were expelled. An estimated 64 will not graduate today as their commander in chief, President Clinton, addresses their class. They have been given punishments ranging from restrictions to the academy to remedial honor training to retaking the Electrical Engineering 311 course, the centerpiece of the scandal.

Beginning Friday and stretching through the summer, they will graduate in a number of small ceremonies. The later the graduation, the deeper the involvement of the midshipmen in what became known as the "Double E problem."

Mr. Jilson expects to spend another year at the academy to finish his degree and realize his dream: a commission as a Marine second lieutenant.

But now all that matters to Mr. Jilson is that he will return. "It's a relief to get back to finish what I had started," said the math major who rowed crew for Navy.

Mr. Jilson was among the first casualties of the scandal that has engulfed the school since Dec. 14, 1992, when the EE311 final exam was reported stolen. The night before the test, copies of the exam filtered throughout Bancroft Hall.

Mr. Jilson, David Bassett and Leonard Milliken were among the original six who came forward and admitted to Navy investigators that they had cheated.

"Coming forward," he said, "seemed like the thing to do."

Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, then chief of naval operations, decided April 21 that the three should return to the academy because they had told the truth. Scores of others lied and stonewalled to the end, violating the academy's honor concept: "Midshipmen are persons of integrity; they do not lie, cheat or steal."

Shortly after he was placed on "administrative leave, pending separation," Mr. Jilson traded his Naval Academy uniform for another, serving as a waiter and a busboy at local restaurants.

At times his academy friends would drop by and offer words of sympathy, telling him he got a raw deal.

"No one has resentment toward me. The only resentment people have is to the academy and the administration" over the way the scandal was handled, he said.

Mr. Jilson said he was not bitter that he was among the few thrown out before a new investigation implicated more than 100 others.

Academy officials were faced with tough decisions, he said. Moreover, "the six of us all said we had it."

"Sometimes people have to take the fall," he said, recalling the old Navy adage "If you run your ship aground, you pay for it."

Still, he was optimistic that he would be reinstated eventually. "I always felt I had a chance to get back in," he said. "I believed that if I did the right thing I would get rewarded for it."

He took math courses at the University of Maryland, lived with friends in apartments in Annapolis and Ellicot City and waited. And waited.

"I was ready to get on with my life," he said. He considered officer candidate school or applying for readmission to the academy.

"I wanted to be in the military. That seemed right for me," he explained.

When he heard a radio news report that three midshipmen's cases had been reversed by Admiral Kelso, he didn't expect to be among them.

But that day he was in the office of his Annapolis lawyer, William Ferris, collecting some documents for a readmission package and noticed something odd about how the secretaries were looking at him.

"I guess you didn't hear," one finally said. "You're one of the three."

Mr. Ferris, a 1970 Naval Academy graduate, said he found the decision "refreshing."

He had grown cynical because of the process, he said. He had tried to convince Navy officials that midshipmen who had stepped forward and told the truth had what it takes to become officers.

"The real tragedy was it had to take a year," he said.

Mr. Jilson said he has learned from the episode. He realizes more than ever the importance of telling the truth and believes he is more understanding of the mistakes people can make, he said.

"I feel now I can be a better person, a better officer and a better leader," he said.

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