WINGS OF DESIRE

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The military demands from its soldiers an old-fashioned marriage, a vow to love, honor and obey. Love, full of sacrifice and hardship, to the point of risking your life and taking other people's lives in your hands, in the belly of your bomber. Honor, through every large and small token of respect: keep your hair short, press your shirt, shine your shoes, salute your superior. And above all, obey without question even the rules that break your heart.

The strange tale of First Lieut. Kelly Flinn has been packaged as a passion play about the man she loved and the job she lost as a result. She has been cast as a victim by a culture that exalts love first and then negotiates honor and obedience. But the military inverts the scale and ranks duty above all else, a marriage under crossed swords. The Flinn case is less a struggle between two people than a conflict between two codes of conduct. The facts weren't much in dispute, only what to make of them.

From a distance, Flinn's story, of a luminous Air Force star who committed adultery, lied about it and disobeyed orders to stop, offers everyone something to believe in and rail against. Those who believe that a sexist Pentagon is holding women to a different standard than it has held generations of men before them were glad to see someone take the system on. Those who believe that the public and especially the press don't understand the unique nature of military culture were grateful that the Air Force wouldn't bend the rules for someone entrusted with a plane carrying 70,000 lbs. of nuclear bombs. Everyone can identify because up close, no one involved--not Flinn, her lover, the Air Force, her unusual array of supporters--is without some merit or without some blame. And so last week it made sense to both sides to just call the whole thing off.

The turning point came in a meeting last Wednesday night. Flinn's lawyer, Frank Spinner, was in his room at the Best Western Safari Inn in Minot, N.D., when the call came from Washington: no way was Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall about to let Flinn resign with an honorable discharge. So several hours after dinner, Spinner sat down with Kelly and her family to look at her choices. He knew what Kelly would say: she would want to fight. She thought she had been abused, not just by the con man she claims lied to her but also by the Air Force. Her crime, she had explained in a letter sent to Widnall a few days earlier, was to fall for the wrong guy. "I truly fell deeply in love with a man who led me down this path of self-destruction and career destruction...I only want to serve my country and be forgiven for my human faults."

Flinn, 26, maintained that she was being made an example; that was nothing new, though until now it had always worked in her favor. After graduating as most distinguished in her training class, she became the Air Force "showgirl," as she put it, the first woman ever to pilot a B-52, the one picked to fly the Air Force Secretary around on her visit to the base. Known as BUFF, for Big Ugly Flying Fellow (or a more colorful variant), the B-52 is the largest bomber in the Air Force, 488,000 lbs. of titanium, aluminum and steel, rigged with eight Pratt & Whitney engines and a 35-ton payload.

Flinn had learned to be a good pilot and a good fighter, and once she came under fire from her chain of command, she wasn't about to crash. That Wednesday, her mother Mary and brother Don had done the Today show, and her Uncle John had gone on Good Morning America "to convey our story." The family had built a Website to solicit contributions for her legal-defense fund and invite readers to E-mail Congress or Kelly with their support. The letters, phone calls and editorials were running heavily in her favor; politicians from both sides of the aisle were blasting the Air Force for conducting a witch-hunt. Senate majority leader Trent Lott, no softy on matters military, declared the previous day that the Pentagon was clueless. "I mean, get real: You're still dealing with human beings. I think it's unfair." Flinn was being "badly abused," Lott said, and at the very least deserved an honorable discharge.

But Secretary Widnall said no, and that night, as the family gathered once more in the Holiday Inn, it was Spinner's job to unravel their optimism. "You have to think about jail," he said to Flinn. If found guilty on all charges, she could face as much as 9 1/2 years in prison. "The closer you get to the courthouse steps, the more the reality sets in," Spinner told TIME later. "And in a criminal trial, the closer you are to the courthouse steps, the closer you are to the jailhouse."

The p.r. battle had taken a bad turn that day as well. Just when the whole affair was looking like a victimless crime, out stepped Gayla Zigo, deceived ex-wife, who alone among the contestants had played the game by the rules. Her letter to Secretary Widnall about her husband's affair with Flinn had leaked that morning; it gave the story a new twist. Gayla wrote that when she discovered Flinn's love letters to Marc, she complained to her supervising sergeant. When the affair continued, she felt outmaneuvered and overwhelmed. "How could I compete with her?" the wife wrote. "She had power, both as an officer and academy graduate. She also had special status as the first female B-52 pilot." Clearly frustrated, Gayla continued, "I am tired of Lieut. Flinn acting as if she is the victim, when she is the one who committed the crimes." Flinn last weekend had a response. She told TIME, "Airman Zigo is not a victim of me, but she is a victim of Marc."

The prosecutors were planning a bareknuckle attack. They planned to drop the adultery and fraternization charges, the focus of all the public outrage, in order to deny Flinn the high ground in the media wars. Instead, they would go after her on the counts of lying to investigators about her affair with Zigo, disobeying a direct order to stop seeing him, and conduct unbecoming an officer--charges the Air Force believed were rock solid. That morning a defiant Air Force Chief of Staff, General Ronald R. Fogleman, had thrown down the gauntlet before a Senate committee in a statement that Spinner claimed poisoned any chance of a fair military trial. "This is not an issue of adultery," Fogleman said. "This is an issue about an officer, entrusted to fly nuclear weapons, who lied. That's what this is about."

The Air Force case doesn't suggest the story of a girl who lost her heart to a cad; its account is of an officer and a vixen. The setting is made for mischief--the cold prairie city of Minot, where all winter long the blizzards howl maddeningly across the frozen North Dakota plains. More people moved out of North Dakota than any other state in the country, according to a survey by Allied Van Lines last year. It's so cold in the winter that the funeral homes stockpile bodies in special warehouses and wait until the earth thaws to dig the graves. Other places welcome spring by dancing around a Maypole. In North Dakota they have lots of burials.

There's not much to do on a Saturday night in Minot. Flinn wouldn't date fellow officers, she said; it wouldn't be professional. And anyway, there are few places to go. The drive down to Bismarck for crab legs at the Red Lobster takes an hour and a half. Minot offers darts or billiards at the local taverns and a bowling tournament every Friday night. Flinn's favorite bar was a college and Air Force hangout called Peyton Place.

The Air Force version of events starts not with Zigo but with a wine-tasting party Flinn gave last June for her soccer team. According to a prosecution report made available to TIME, among the guests was Senior Airman Colin Thompson, whom Flinn had met a few months before. During the party, the report alleges, Flinn and Thompson had sex on the lawn of her residence; then Thompson spent the night. According to the report, Thompson claimed that Flinn, his superior in rank, told him that she knew what they did was wrong but that no one would ever find out about it. It was this encounter that gave rise to the fraternization charge against her.

Just days after that party, Airman Gayla Zigo arrived at the Minot Air Force Base with her husband Marc, who was hired as the base youth sports director. Marc and Flinn met when he too joined a soccer team. Gayla says she and Marc had dinner with Flinn and Thompson and another couple after a soccer game on June 30. She recalls Flinn and Thompson flirting, joking about marriage. "She said, 'Where's my ring?' and held out her hand," Gayla remembers. Thompson fashioned a paper ring out of a napkin, and he put it on Flinn's hand. Gayla says Thompson had drunk too much to drive home, so after dinner Flinn drove him.

Flinn's mother says Kelly had dated a lot but had never really fallen in love. That all changed with Zigo. On July 3, about three days after Marc and Kelly met, the report alleges, Marc and Gayla had an argument. Marc telephoned Flinn, who invited him to her house. "Less than a week after we arrived to the base," charges Gayla, "Lieut. Flinn was in bed with my husband having sex." Flinn insists the relationship was not "consummated" until August. But Gayla's fears were magnified when she found a letter alluding to that July day. "I want to spend the rest of my life beside you, walking through life hand in hand," Kelly wrote to Marc. She even enclosed a picture taken the next morning, July 4. "You have my heart, soul, mind and body...you are my soul mate. You make me whole." Flinn explains that the love notes were a signal of her affection for Marc--a signal that he demanded in exchange for his own sentiments.

A week later, Flinn helped the Zigos move into their new home. In the weeks that followed, Gayla says, she often came home to find Kelly there. "I began to wonder if she ever went to work because she was always there," Gayla says. On July 11, she says, Marc came home drunk from a bar, and they got into a fight. Marc called Flinn, who offered to come pick him up. While she sat crying on her stoop, Gayla says, the bomber pilot drove up in her Honda Accord and whisked Marc Zigo away.

After Gayla found one of Kelly's love letters to Marc in his car, she felt she had to act. She took the letter, along with others (one of which had come with a key to Flinn's apartment attached), to her supervisor, First Sgt. Kathleen Blackley. It was at this stage that Flinn was offered her first escape hatch. Blackley confronted Flinn with the evidence and warned her that if she didn't break off the affair, Blackley would report it to Flinn's commanding officer. Prosecutors claim that Flinn told Blackley she knew she was in the wrong and promised to "cease contact" with Marc. Blackley decided to let the matter drop.

Had that been the last of it, the affair might have ended like most adultery cases, privately, discreetly, without official sanction. Of the 67 Air Force court-martial cases in 1996 that involved adultery, only one did not include other counts, like sexual assault or disobeying orders. When an affair involves an officer messing around with a civilian marriage, officials tend to look the other way. If Marc and Gayla had been separated--as Marc had convinced Kelly they were--there would probably have been little intervention. But once Gayla, an enlisted airman, told a superior that an officer was trying to steal her husband, the Air Force had to go on alert.

The affair boiled over in November, when another officer, First Lieut. Brian Mudery, was brought up on charges of sexual misconduct and assault, and proceeded to point the finger at other officers for similar misdeeds. None of his accusations panned out--until investigators got to Flinn. She made a pact with Zigo to deny their affair and gave base police several sworn statements that she and Marc had no sexual relationship. She didn't know that Marc was busy making a statement of his own.

By the time Marc was done, he had given investigators the full tour of Flinn's privacy, a map of where and how and how often they had had sex. Four days later, on Dec. 1, he tried to kill himself by taking sleeping pills and stuffing a rag in the exhaust of his car. But he left the garage door open and called Gayla from the car phone. In the hospital, he finally admitted the affair to her, and she announced that she was through with him. When Kelly went to see him, says Ann Dell Duncan, a clinical psychologist who evaluated Kelly later in February, Marc told Kelly, "If you leave me, I'll hurt you and I'll kill myself." When Zigo left the hospital, Flinn took him in. She bought a new car--the Jeep he'd always wanted. He was living in her house on Dec. 13 when Flinn's commander, Lieut. Colonel Theodore LaPlante, ordered her to have no further contact with Marc. Flinn signed a statement acknowledging she understood the order. A week later, Kelly took him to Georgia for Christmas to meet her parents.

It was not until the end of January that Flinn finally learned how much Marc had told the investigators. She learned a lot more about him too. It turned out that four months after he married Gayla, he was charged with beating her, in a case that never went to trial. He had lied about where and when he was born, his life, his career, nearly everything.

Flinn threw Marc out of the house and found herself a lawyer. Lieut. General Phillip J. Ford, commander of the Eighth Air Force at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, approved a recommendation that she be court-martialed. Ford could have slapped her with a "nonjudicial," or administrative, punishment, such as a reprimand or reduction in rank, which is what senior Air Force officials in the Pentagon now wish he had done. Instead, on Feb. 25, Flinn was ordered to stand trial.

Flinn was in the middle of a three-day psychological evaluation with Duncan, which was recommended by her lawyer, when she heard about the court-martial. "She was devastated," Duncan says, especially because the Air Force p.r. officer had apparently released the information without advising Flinn first. "She hadn't thought the Air Force would treat her that way." Duncan viewed Flinn as "competent, careful, capable of handling external emergencies and unequipped from her training in the Air Force Academy to deal with personal emergencies. I think the academy prepares pilots and military personnel. What they don't do is prepare people," says Duncan, who designed family-advocacy centers for the Air Force in the 1980s.

Once the case became public, it was the Air Force and its rules that went on trial first. Even though Flinn had been given several chances to extricate herself from the whole business if only she would stop seeing Marc, the case soon became one of sex discrimination in the service. Connecticut Republican Representative Nancy Johnson complained in a May 19 letter to Widnall, "It is disgraceful that Lieut. Flinn's career as a [bomber] pilot will be over simply because overzealous prosecutors targeted her case over numerous others with more egregious circumstances." New York Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney wondered "if an equally accomplished male pilot had made the same mistakes, how many high-ranking Air Force members would have looked the other way?"

For Widnall, 58, the first woman to be Secretary of the Air Force, the case was a nightmare. She canceled a trip to Greenland and England to work almost full time to defuse the time bomb. Defense Secretary William Cohen was silent on the issue, fearing that if he made so much as a peep, he'd be drawn into it by appeals from Flinn's lawyers. As for the White House, former Clinton adviser Dick Morris says, "If you're going to talk about adultery on the one hand and the military on the other, those are two reasons [the President] should stay out."

On Monday, Flinn and her lawyers submitted a request to resign in lieu of a court-martial on the condition that it be an honorable discharge. The petition was rushed up the Air Force chain of command in three days, lightning speed in the military bureaucracy for such a request. On Tuesday, Widnall put the Flinn court-martial on hold while she considered the request. An honorable discharge was out of the question; there would be practically a mutiny in the senior officer corps if she allowed such blatant favoritism for an officer charged with these offenses. In private with Widnall, Air Force General Fogleman was even blunter than he had been before the Senate. This was an issue of integrity, he told the Secretary. Forget adultery. The Air Force's core values were at stake. Officers don't lie.

So it was that Pentagon lawyers phoned Spinner Wednesday night with word that the request was rejected. By 11 p.m., Kelly and her family had gathered with Spinner at their hotel and were arguing that she should quit the fight and pray that the Air Force would agree to give her a general discharge, not an other than honorable one. "Kelly being a fighter, her first inclination was to fight all the way," says her father Don of the session. "But we said it was pretty much that if she won the fight she might lose the war."

Kelly left the hotel about 1 a.m. Half an hour later, her two brothers drove to her house to remonstrate, reminding her that she was "dealing with a force that did not have a face and that we do not have control over." One of her chief concerns was the fate of the next person to face an ordeal like hers if she didn't carry the fight all the way. "She was frustrated," says brother Don. "And yes, there were tears." Finally, at 3 a.m., she seemed to cave in quite suddenly. She would take the general discharge. And at last everyone went to bed.

"Kelly is prepared to sign," brother Don told Spinner the next morning. Widnall, meanwhile, was at the Pentagon, where she worked out with weights, then pedaled furiously on her exercise bike to think through the final decision she would make. By 5:30 p.m. she went before the cameras to announce the resolution. "Although it is the adultery charge that has received the greatest public focus," Widnall said, "it is the allegations of lack of integrity and disobedience to order that have been of principal concern to the Air Force. It is primarily those allegations that have made an honorable discharge unacceptable."

Flinn leaves the service with a stigma on her service record. By military definition, a general discharge is given to someone whose "service has been honest and faithful," according to military regulations, but when "significant negative aspects of the member's conduct or performance of duty outweigh positive aspects of the member's military record." Since she is resigning so soon after graduation, Flinn will have to repay about 20% of the cost of her Air Force Academy education, or about $19,000.

For all the anguish, Spinner was elated after the deal was sealed Thursday. He told Kelly that in all his adultery or fraternization cases, none of his clients had got off so lightly. As he and the Flinn family lashed out at the Air Force in the press room Thursday afternoon, about 15 Air Force men and women stood silent in the back, looking stern, sad and angry. "This goes against everything I learned in basic training," said a young enlisted man as he left the room.

Minutes later, Marc Zigo, who had returned to Minot to testify against his former lover, called a press conference of his own, which Kelly's parents attended. "Don't worry," Kelly's mother Mary told an anxious Air Force spokesman. "Our dignity is not worth sacrificing for this man. We just want to hear what he has to say." And so they stood outside, behind the wall of cameras and microphones, as the man who helped wreck their daughter's career belligerently declared that Flinn was no abused victim. "At no time was a gun to Lieut. Flinn's head," he said. He admitted that he had lied about his life and offered apologies to his family and his former wife; he had not a word of remorse for Kelly.

Gayla Zigo is on her own. To supplement her pay, she took a second job--working the front desk at the Holiday Inn, where the Flinns have been staying. Meanwhile, Peyton Place has become a sort of informal clearinghouse for Kelly's civilian-job offers, which have been pouring in from all around the country. On Friday, the Air Force ordered her to relinquish the locker containing her survival gear. Flinn ended the week deluged with book and movie inquiries, and certainly she has a story that bears retelling. Or that is too much to bear. "I just want to get in my Jeep and go," she told TIME. "I'll probably throw some outdoor gear in the Jeep, put the top down, get myself a dog and go."