The cadet honor code, the bedrock of Academy life, states, “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” My violation of the honor code weighed heavily on my conscience, keeping me awake at night. Finally I was driven by my tormented soul to turn myself in for a violation of the honor code to which I subscribed with all my heart.
Fifty-four years after the fact this is still a hard story to tell. A shocking incident of self-discovery that occurred recently was like God talking, telling me that it was time to dislodge the stigma of an early career crash-and-burn that has haunted me all these years. In hindsight, it has God’s fingerprints all over it.
With visions of dancing the wild blue in a jet fighter, I joined the United States Air Force Academy Class of ’66 in the summer of ’62, at its magnificent campus at the eastern foot of the Rampart Range just north of Colorado Springs, CO. I arrived after a year of college (the University of Illinois and AFROTC), honored and excited beyond belief at having made the grade. Those emotions were immediately and jarringly buried by the intensity of daily, minute-by-minute survival as a “doolie,” the equivalent of a West Point plebe.
Doolie summer in those days was like Marine Corps boot camp, near as I can tell from Marine friends. At that it was nothing like what U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee went thru at West Point in the pre-Civil War era. What in my time was called hazing was SOP—standard operating procedure—when those iconic generals were plebes. I am told that today it’s a picnic by my class’s standards, to say nothing of the generals.
When classes began in the fall the physical aspects of doolie summer abated just enough to squeeze in an academic load that would have today’s college snowflakes crowding the cry rooms and demanding more coloring books. By my lights I was excelling. I never once “fell out” of a marathon formation run through the mountains in Colorado’s thin air, in combat boots with M-1 rifle at port arms, even when, after the first few miles, its weight exceeded my body weight. I never once walked a punishment tour, similar to what the soldiers do at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, for some infraction of rules that only the military considers cardinal sin, and my classroom grades were excellent. At Christmas we were not allowed to leave campus, but our tormentors, the upperclassmen, did. It was the first respite since early summer and it was wonderful—heaven on earth.
Come second semester, we no longer had to eat three meals a day while sitting at attention, out on the front few inches of our chairs with back ramrod straight, head up and eyes locked on the center of our plates, and speaking only when spoken to, usually in drill sergeant tones and content. One more semester and life would get good again.
Second semester the ranks were shuffled among each flight and I got a new element and assistant element leader immediately above me in my chain of command. Early on I got singled out, for reasons I will never know, by the assistant element leader for “special instruction.” After all I’d been through I did not think the system could throw anything at me that I could not handle. I was wrong. The routine I remember most clearly was the order from him to appear in the hallway outside the door of my room, a nearly impossible few minutes after reveille, with bed made to inspection specs, in uniform with rifle, and stand at attention for a zealous, meticulous inspection. A most unhandsome, pock-marked face breathed all over mine as he scowled in creative pejorative terms and grilled me on memory work, both standard and some ad hoc stuff. Failure to regurgitate the information precisely, or the slightest imperfection in the arrangement of my attire, real or imagined, led to push-ups and other physical feats. The element leader was sometimes also in attendance, about half as tall but equally in disdain for the sorry specimen of a doolie standing rock rigid before them. None of this treatment in general was new to doolie life, except for the relentless time-consuming intensity of it during the school year, and their ability to find and exploit the chinks in my armor.
I had run out of minutes in the day and began to fail those character building tests, till finally I cracked. A question was asked—I don’t recall what it was—but I lied to avoid further “corrective action.” The cadet honor code, the bedrock of Academy life, states, “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” My violation of the honor code weighed heavily on my conscience, keeping me awake at night. Finally I was driven by my tormented soul to turn myself in for a violation of the honor code to which I subscribed with all my heart.
I sat in a straight chair in front of a panel of my judges, the Academy’s senior Air Force officers and senior cadets and was grilled most respectfully. I was not allowed to (nor did I care to) be present when witnesses were called, including my element leader and his assistant. Also called to testify was my staff sponsor, an assigned mentor and surrogate parent. Lt. Col. Hilda R. Echols was chief nurse at the USAFA hospital. Her face was horribly scarred from an oxygen tank explosion in WW II, and she was military bearing personified, but she loved the Lord and had a heart as big as the Rampart Range. Her home near the hospital was my only refuge on rare occasions when we were allowed to visit our sponsors. She testified before the tribunal and then came into the waiting room where I sat alone and we had a long soul-baring discussion. I remember only one sentence she spoke, and I can close my eyes and see her saying it now. It has preserved me untold times since, when life was tough and I was ready to throw in the towel. She said, “I told them that Jerry Wetterling was not a quitter.” She believed in me more than I believed in me at that point. I so look forward to seeing that saint with her perfected face in heaven.
Bottom line, I left the Academy, under terms unknown to me. I have not a single piece of paper in my possession that officially declares the verdict, but I assume it was in line with my confession. In my mind, to this day, I was guilty. My element leader and assistant leader were forced to leave. I can only guess their verdicts.
When I returned to the farm in western Illinois in the spring of ‘63, a broken young man, I could not give my father an explanation that made any sense to him. He took me into town, to the office of our State Representative, the man who guided us through the bureaucratic maze necessary to get into a service academy. They called some official at USAFA and talked at length over a phone and an extension, and I could not hear the other side of the conversation.
On our drive in the pickup back to the farm, not a word was exchanged between my dad and me. We walked into the house together and Mom met us with a questioning look at Dad. Dad took off his cap, scratched his head with the same hand that held the cap, the way farmers do, and said, “Jerry came home because he wanted to.” He, too, knew me better than I knew me. I am indeed a master of self-delusion, the mark of a sinner, and even now I’m questioning myself as I write, as to how much of this is objective truth and how much is shaded toward self-aggrandizing and/or blame sharing. Is the fog of my memory a result of my advancing codgerhood or the same old sinful preservation of pride?
Through that long spring and summer back on the farm I thought I’d left for good, my dream to be a fighter pilot, now a pipe dream at worst, seriously jeopardized at best, was undiminished. I went back to the University of Illinois that fall and applied for the advanced AFROTC program. Miracle of miracles, I was accepted. Uncle Sam would never have approved a USAFA dropout for advanced ROTC without reading the official report of my leaving. That told me that whatever it said, I was still considered Air Force officer material, or at least was worth giving a second chance, and could pursue my dream. After a painful healing hiatus in the desert of despair and self-recrimination, I was a born again fighter pilot wannabe!
God was gracious indeed to this recovering USAFA failure. I rose to the top of the AFROTC ranks—after my Academy experience I certainly had an advantage. I graduated with a regular commission in the USAF, the same kind of commission as if I had graduated from USAFA, but a rare thing in ROTC. I rejoined my Academy classmates at USAF pilot training, and with perhaps more motivation than most, I finished first in a class of fifty-six, essential to getting a fighter assignment, and realized my dream. At F-100 training, in a class of twenty-four new pilots who all finished at or very near the top of their class, I graduated Top Gun, went off to war in Vietnam and my fighter pilot life was all I ever dreamed it could be.
There’s one more very important part to this story. When God in His providence sent me back to the University of Illinois, He put the most beautiful, wonderful woman in the world in my life through the ROTC program. A freshman, she wasn’t there my first time around, and she’s been my wife for over fifty years now. The saddest story in my life has had the happiest ending I could imagine, and it’s still playing out. And the best is yet to come.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
J.D. Wetterling is an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America living in Mason, Ohio. He is the author or numerous books: Son of Thunder, about his service as a fighter pilot in Viet Nam; No Time to Waste about the life of Jack Bennett mentioned in the article; and “No One…”, about Jesus’ call to trust him alone for salvation. This article is used with permission.