When the Navy discovered an exam-cheating ring aboard one of its submarines, it swiftly fired the commanding officer and kicked off 10 percent of the crew.
Navy officials describe the case aboard the USS Memphis as a rare lapse in integrity, but some former officers say the shortcuts exposed by the scandal are hardly unique to a single vessel.
The former submariners tell the Associated Press it is not uncommon for sailors to receive answer keys or other hints before training exams. They say sailors know how to handle the nuclear technology, but commanders competing with one another to show proficiency have made tests so difficult -- and so detached from the skills sailors actually need -- that crew members sometimes bend the rules.
An investigation report obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information Act request describes an atmosphere aboard the USS Memphis that tolerated and even encouraged cheating: Sailors were emailed the answers before qualification exams, took tests outside the presence of proctors and openly asked officers for answer keys. One sailor told investigators that test-takers were encouraged to "use their time wisely" during breaks, insinuating that they should look up answers to exam questions.
A submarine force spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Monica Rousselow, said the Navy holds its officers and crew to very high standards and denied that cheating is rampant.
"The evidence we have shows that it's very rare," said Rousselow, who is based in Norfolk, Va.
But three former officers said the episode aboard the Groton, Conn.-based Memphis was an extreme example of shortcuts that occur aboard many of the roughly 70 American submarines in service.
One of the former officers, Christopher Brownfield, wrote in a book published last year that his superiors aboard the USS Hartford urged him to accept an answer key to pass a nuclear qualification exam. He said other crew members received answers by email, and the sub's leadership ignored him when he complained about cheating.
"It was almost universal," Brownfield said in an interview. "I don't know anybody on the ship who could have passed that exam without cheating on the first try."
As an instructor at the Navy's submarine school in Groton in 2005, Brownfield said he heard from members of roughly a dozen other crews that cheating took place on their boats. He blamed pressure to hit ever-higher performance targets.