The War Within

As America prepares to invade Iraq, female Air Force cadets wage their own battle.

Lisa Ballas arrived at the party in good spirits. In fact, everyone there was. Their school football team just beat the University of Wyoming 24-13, steaks were grilling, the television was tuned to sports, and they were ready to celebrate.

The group of about fifteen students gathered at the Aurora home toasted a friend who was leaving school, then split up, some of them heading down to the basement to play Twister while others watched television as a card game started in the kitchen. But this wasn't just any college party. It was thrown by and for cadets of the United States Air Force Academy, a place where young men and women vow to live honorably and take oaths against lying, stealing and cheating. A place where every decision has a consequence.

On this October 13, 2001, night, twenty-year-old Lisa decided to drink seven vodka-and-lemonade cocktails. She threw up about three hours into the party; feeling better afterward, she decided to join the poker game -- despite its drink-if-you-lose stakes. Not long after, her friends upped the ante to an item of clothing. Lisa protested at first, then went along with them and ended up disrobing down to her underwear.

Jessica Brakey doesn't want rape victims to fear coming forward.
John Johnston
Jessica Brakey doesn't want rape victims to fear coming forward.
The Air Force Academy is the scene of several rape allegations.
John Johnston
The Air Force Academy is the scene of several rape allegations.

But that was far enough for her; she got dressed and went to get a glass of water. On the way, cadet Max Rodriguez stopped her. Although she'd just met him earlier that evening, she knew of him through friends and knew that he was engaged to be married, so when he took her by the wrist and led her out of the kitchen and into the master bathroom, she didn't think much of it. Not even when he started kissing her -- or when she kissed him back. But she was hazy from the alcohol, and things started moving fast -- too fast. He started touching her and taking off her clothes. Was the room spinning? He lifted her onto the countertop, and the fog started to clear. Lisa finally understood the situation.

She told him to stop. "I was in incredible pain, and I looked down and he was in me," says Lisa, who planned to stay a virgin until marriage. "I said, 'No,' and he immediately kissed me and pushed me against the mirror."

Again, she claims, she told him to stop and pushed him away. "He started trying to calm me down, brushing my face and hair. He leaned me back against the counter and inserted his penis again," she recalls. "I said, 'Stop it!' and I pushed him away again."

Just then, the cadet hosting the party knocked on the door and told them to leave his parents' bathroom. Max finally let Lisa go. She got dressed and found her trusted friend Justin Chandler. When another friend, Adam Keith, discovered them, Lisa was sobbing, and she asked him to go with her to straighten up any mess.

"Once in the bathroom, I turned on the light and saw a good amount of blood smeared around in an area on the counter, and about six spots where nine or so drops had fallen onto the floor," Adam recalled later in a sworn statement. "Lisa seemed really embarrassed at this time, and I could tell she was not expecting to see what she did when I turned on the light. She frantically went over to the counter and immediately began wiping up the blood off the counter, trying to clean it up as fast as she could so I wouldn't have to see it."

When Adam pointed out the blood spots on the carpet, Lisa asked him to help her find cleaning supplies. While they were letting carpet cleaner soak in, "Lisa totally broke down crying," he noted. "She was sobbing really hard, and I just hugged her to provide support. She kept saying stuff like, 'I didn't know where he was taking me. He said, "Follow me, follow me," and I just followed him. I didn't know that this was the parents' bedroom. I didn't know that he locked the door. I feel so bad. At least nothing happened; at least nothing happened. I am glad that nothing happened.'

"This upset me a little bit, because it was very clear from the blood that something did happen, and I knew that she was just in denial," Adam continued. "She kept sobbing really hard, and I was surprised when she said, 'I told him NO! Three times, I told him NO! I tried to push him away.' She said that like four times in a row."

The next day, Lisa Ballas returned to Colorado Springs and reported the incident, beginning a three-month investigation and a chain of events that left her feeling betrayed by an academy she grew up admiring.

This isn't the first time one cadet has accused another of rape. Sexual-assault allegations started flaring up at the academy in 1993 after a freshman reported being assaulted on base the night of Valentine's Day. Although the attackers were never positively identified -- and some were suspected to be civilians -- superintendent Lieutenant General Brad Hosmer held an unprecedented private meeting with all 501 female cadets. He asked who knew of other women assaulted at school; 205 of them said they did. Eight days later, Hosmer held a rare press conference, in which he announced that two more female cadets had come forward with reports of sexual assault. "We have a problem at the Air Force Academy," Hosmer told the reporters. "This problem has existed for some time."

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