Latest scandals shake Naval Academy pride Allegations raise questions about selection process

April 13, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF Sun staff reporter Kris Antonelli contributed to this article.

After two weeks of troubling news at the Naval Academy, a gallows humor has drifted into Bancroft Hall, the stone dormitory where all midshipmen live.

"They shaved the Unabomber's goatee," begins one joke making the rounds, "and discovered he's a midshipman."

In the past two weeks, a top midshipman leader was jailed awaiting charges that he sexually assaulted four women midshipmen; another was charged with sexual abuse against a 2-year-old; two former and three current midshipmen were indicted for running a car-theft ring; and another was being court-martialed for LSD use.

What is going on at the academy?

Some of it is a combination of coincidence and tough enforcement. When the LSD arrests were made, for example, the academy pressed an investigation and immediately made the entire 4,000-member brigade take drug tests. "I think that was an act of leadership," says James Webb, a Vietnam War hero, former Navy secretary and best-selling novelist who graduated from the academy in 1968.

But some of the problems come from something bigger: It appears the academy is admitting some of the wrong people to the hallowed halls where midshipmen do not "lie, cheat or steal."

Four of the five arrested in the al-

leged car theft ring, for example, attended the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I., which offers a 10-month course for those whose grades are not high enough to get into the academy. Three of the five arrested on the car-theft allegations appeared before academic review boards, one of them five times, according to an academy source.

Some wonder if the academy screening process is faulty -- especially when the other service academies aren't having problems. At the Army and Air Force academies, there have been few problems recently, except for the occasional drunken cadet, say spokesmen at both schools.

And some of the problems undoubtedly come from the example set by the Navy's top leadership, where officers have been dismissed from command for making crude comments or having affairs with lower-ranking officers.

Problems with the system?

"Absolutely not," says Admiral Charles R. Larson, the academy's superintendent, perched on his office couch and wearing an impeccable uniform that bears the glistening gold badges of an aviator and a submariner. "I think we're on a good course. Things just happened to converge all at once."

But the four-star officer, who once commanded all U.S. forces in the Pacific, appears as nervous and tentative as a newly minted ensign. Told of the Bancroft Hall joke, he bristles and labels it "gross."

As if on cue, he picks up a piece of paper on his glass-covered coffee table, neatly arranged with books and old Life magazines, picturing World War II naval heroes. It is an e-mail message from a midshipman, he explains, and reads all four paragraphs. "We cannot condemn the entire academy because of a few instances of failure," the message states at one point. "In any system some will fail."

He finishes and looks up. "There's a lot of feeling like that over there," the admiral says of Bancroft Hall, looming outside his window.

The LSD scandal involving 24 midshipmen shows the academy got to the bottom of it and reflects a "zero tolerance toward drugs." The other three cases are "totally isolated," he says. The alleged sexual assaults show women midshipmen are "comfortable" coming forward with complaints.

Since coming to the academy, he has created a character development program, restructured the leadership curriculum and tightened the military environment.

"I have a plan," he says. "I know exactly where I'm going."

Longtime academy observers praise the superintendent.

"Those who do bad things are held accountable," says retired Admiral Leon "Bud" Edney, an academy graduate who served as academy commandant, the second-highest post, in the early 1980s. "When you do that you're going to get a bad headline."

Richard Armitage, another academy graduate and former State Department official who -- after the cheating scandal -- chaired a committee reviewing the academy's honor training, praised Admiral Larson. But both he and Mr. Webb are troubled by the problems.

"Who are they? How did they get in? What are their requirements?" Mr. Webb asks.

"When you lower your standards for political reasons are you bringing in a different kind of person, a person who's not meeting the same exacting requirements as other people?" wonders Mr. Webb.

Political reasons? Women and minorities?

"Among others or football players," he says, arguing that such sports figures sit at separate dining tables and are exempt from marching. "I think we oversell the importance of football in the preparation of an officer."

Mr. Webb also finds the Navy's leadership wanting. "When [midshipmen] see the leadership at the top in doublespeak on issues of political correctness, it creates an artificial ethical environment," he argues. "It filters to everyone."

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