First published March 9, 1997

The honor code is 'simple and all-encompassing'

By MATT CHITTUM
Staff Writer

LEXINGTON -- David Harback rattled a huge set of keys as he patrolled the barracks. The keys were a warning. The barracks watchdog was coming.

"Basically, I'm looking for anything that is bonable," he said.

That's bonable as in the verb "to bone." In the lexicon of the Virginia Military Institute, that means anything you can get in trouble for. And there are plenty of ways to get in trouble at VMI.

You could wind up on trial by the General Committee for taking a privilege that was not yours. More serious offenses, like hazing, go to the Executive Committee. Freshman, or rats, get worked out by the Rat Disciplinary Committee.

At the heart of it all is the school's simple honor code. "A cadet does not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do." Cadets found guilty by the Honor Court of violating any part of this code are immediately expelled.

"We're not just developing the intellect here, but the whole person," said senior Jim Wrenn, an honor court prosecutor. "The system develops you both morally and physically."

Harback, a senior from Carlisle, Pa., was doing his turn as Officer of the Day in the VMI barracks. The offenses the "O.D." finds tend to be pretty minor in nature.

It's a thankless 24-hour shift, much of it spent wandering through the barracks and canteen looking for cadets to "bone."

"First stoop, stop!" Harback yelled at one cadet on the first floor. It was just after 7 p.m., a little over two hours into Harback's shift. "Name and initials," he demanded.

A.W. Osborn wanted to know what he'd done.

"Improperly dressed," Harback said. Osborn was wearing his bathrobe with no pants underneath, in violation of a new rule in the barracks this year.

His name was jotted on the clip board carried by Phu Trinh, Harback's assistant.

That will amount to five demerits for Osborn. Not that big of a deal, until they add up.

"If I see it, I have to report it," Harback explained. As the O.D., a duty every senior has to pull at least once during the year, Harback is honor bound to write down everything he sees, no matter who is involved. Even a member of his own guard team.

No exceptions.

It's a tough, absolute rule, but the cadets have found a way to get around it some of the time.

Everywhere Harback went, he rattled a monstrous ring of keys. Many are broken off. No one knows what they go to. Their only purpose is as a warning that the O.D. is coming.

Cadets whisper, "Keys, keys!" when they hear them rattle.

Some officers of the day - not Harback - wear their hats low on their brow to impair their own vision. What they can't see, they can't report.

A sure way to get a reputation as a jerk is to walk around looking for problems and not rattling those keys.

On the other hand, if the O.D. isn't sure of what he saw, he cannot ask.

If Harback were to get a whiff of alcohol on a cadet's breath, he cannot ask him if he's been drinking.

It's a sort of fifth amendment protection. Because the cadet is bound by the honor code to tell the truth, asking him if he's guilty forces him to incriminate himself.

"It's called 'using your honor against you,'" Harback said.

***

Harback wandered down to Cameron Hall to check out the basketball game, but he wasn't looking too hard for trouble there.

"I'm not looking to bone," he said. "I'm looking to regulate. Just making my presence felt."

The rats, all gathered in one section of the auditorium, felt it especially well.

Once they heard the keys and noticed Harback's maroon O.D. sash, they couldn't take their eyes off of him.

"If you don't cheer, I'll bone you all senseless," Harback kidded them.

Rats lives are miserable enough without a trip to the Rat Disciplinary Committee, which Harback could easily arrange.

Every Tuesday and Thursday night, the R.D.C. meets to put some rats back in line.

That means a serious workout. Fifteen to 30 minutes of brutal exercise.

"Everybody should experience the R.D.C. at least once," said Jeff Staub, president of the R.D.C. It's a matter of pride. Not to have been in trouble, but to have survived it. It's part of the rat experience, a bragging right.

With the rat line almost over, a good many rats were getting called to the RDC for just about any offense just to give all of them a taste of it.

Most rats wind up before the R.D.C. for minor offenses anyway, Staub said. Like not being clean shaven or missing three Rat Bible questions.

After hearing the charge read, the rats can plead "correct," "correct but wish to explain," or "incorrect."

Either of the first two pleas gets them a serious workout.

And if the rat pleads incorrect, he gets to go back to his room.

A rat, like any cadet, is honor bound to tell the truth. Not even the R.D.C. can question a cadet's honor.

***

At 1 a.m., Harback was in bed, but Physics Professor Bill McNairy, the faculty member in charge of the barracks that night, was on patrol.

Twice a night, the faculty officer in charge randomly checks cadet rooms to make sure everyone who is supposed to be there is there.

Rats are supposed to be in their rooms with the lights out at 11 p.m.

McNairy picked a place to start and went room to room counting heads with a flashlight. If he counted three heads where there should be four, he left a pink slip in the room noting the offense.

The rat who was caught missing - and only he might know who he is - was on his honor to turn himself in.

For such an indiscretion, a rat probably would be sentenced to five "penalty tours," or 50-minute marches. By late February, several rats had piled up better than 300 of these tours. One rat had nearly 900, and was suspended for the year.

"He just basically refused to be a cadet," said Jason Pierson, a rat from Botetourt County.

The only chance for a cadet with that many penalty tours to get out from under them is for a dignitary to visit campus. Certain people can grant the cadets amnesty, and wipe the "P.T." board clean. Former President George Bush did it last year. Gov. George Allen, however, waited until his third visit to VMI to grant amnesty.

"He wasn't too popular around here for a while," said senior David Zirkle of Richmond.

***

At 3:30 a.m., about an hour after McNairy finished his bed check, the barracks roared to life with a drum roll.

Someone had been found guilty of an honor code violation.

For the seventh time this year, a cadet was being "drummed out." Last year, it happened 17 times.

When a cadet is drummed out, the members of the honor court go room to room calling cadets out for the announcement by the honor court president.

Aaron C. Elswick was the second rat this year to be expelled.

Elswick "did make a false official statement by failing to bone himself for unauthorized absence from the 2400 status check on or about 21 Jan. 1997," read the notice still posted in a special display case the next morning.

Elswick apparently was out of his room at midnight one night during a bed check. If he had turned himself in as the one missing, he would have spent five hours marching penalty tours and it would all have been forgotten. But somebody else turned him in first.

At VMI, there are no degrees of guilt. Lying to a roommate about borrowing a compact disc is as serious under the honor code as stealing hundreds of dollars from him.

It is more about a philosophy than a set of laws, said Wrenn, the Honor Court prosecutor. The beauty of the honor code is how "simple and all-encompassing it is."

David Epperly, a freshman from Christiansburg, knew Elswick. He said the announcement changed his opinion of Elswick. He can't hold him in the same respect now, he said.

"It's his honor," he said. "And he violated it for what, five P.T.s?"

Because even an accusation can besmirch a cadet's honor, the Honor Court operates almost entirely in secret. Only the president, who serves as a judge, the prosecutors, the defendant and ultimately the jury know when the court has met.

The court follows the uniform code of military justice.

Defendants can have whatever counsel they choose, from another cadet to a professional attorney. A case can't even go to trial unless the superintendent of the school decides there is enough evidence to go forward.

If the verdict is not guilty, no announcement that the defendant has been tried is ever made.

Cadets found guilty, however, leave campus almost right away. They are gone by the time the drums begin to rumble through the barracks announcing their departure.

At 5 p.m. the next day, Harback's shift as officer of the day was over.

Except for the drum out, it was an uneventful one.

In all, he boned only 18 people for a small variety of offenses, mostly being improperly dressed in the barracks courtyard.

Harback waited in the archway leading into the barracks to watch the changing of the guard, and then handed the keys over to the next guy.