The War Within

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

Mackey, who followed some of the high-profile assault cases at the Air Force Academy a decade ago, says assault victims in military schools are treated no differently than victims who are in the service. And psychological evaluations, she explains, are a common way for the military to discredit victims. "It's the whole nuts or sluts thing," she says. "You're either a slut or you're crazy. When you're traumatized, you don't remember all the details at first, and they use that to discount victims' claims. They do nothing to nurture or help the victim. Sure, there are individuals who try to help, but the majority of people in the system are there to shut you down."

Major Shifrin says that's simply untrue. "Every cadet has to be medically qualified to be commissioned and to serve in the Air Force after graduation here, and that's both physical health and mental health," he says. "Cadets are evaluated all the time medically."

Former cadet Amy Watroba was found to be mentally unfit after claiming she'd been sexually harassed. In a 1996 lawsuit she brought against the Air Force Academy, she alleged that some of the men in her squadron talked frequently about masturbation, made derogatory comments about women, tried to make her view pornography and ejaculated onto a football banner before an Academy-Army game. Watroba claimed that after she and her roommates reported the incidents, they were retaliated against by others in the squadron -- either ignored or taunted -- while their superiors looked on.

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.

The formerly healthy cadet and good student started shaking, awakening from nightmares and having trouble concentrating on schoolwork. She was hospitalized twice for overdosing on pain medication and finally decided to leave the academy at the end of the 1994 semester. But first the academy ordered her to undergo a mental-health evaluation. The military psychologist who examined Watroba determined that she had "resolved adjustment disorder" and was unpredictable. The psychologist noted in his report that Watroba had a "counterproductive sense of inadequacy in a non-gender-equal environment." She received an involuntary medical discharge that prohibited her from ever serving in the military again. Because of the Feres Doctrine, her case was dismissed in 1999.

Jessica Brakey says she knows of fifteen other cadets who have been sexually assaulted in the past two years and that most of them never reported it. "The number-one reason cadets don't report is because they're in denial. No one wants to admit they were raped." Jessica also says cadets fear that no one will believe a fellow cadet assaulted them because of the misconception that a rape claim is only legitimate if the attacker is a stranger who jumps out of the bushes.

"And number two, cadets fear retribution," Jessica continues. "No one wants to make waves; it's not worth losing your education over."

Another cadet who reported being raped left the academy around the same time as Jessica. Citing school policy, freshman Justine Parks asked not to be punished for drinking and for violating other rules the night she was assaulted in an upperclassman's dorm room. But she received heavy sanctions nonetheless.

That angered her CASIE representative so much that he quit the program. The cadet, who had initially encouraged her to report the crime, stated in his November 19, 2002, resignation letter, "This was a grave mistake on my part. I should never have trusted the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, who repeatedly assured us that they would make every effort to maintain a victim's dignity. I should never have trusted the command representatives who repeatedly assured us that the program, and more importantly, the victim, would get the support needed in a time like this. In trusting them, I became part of the problem.

"It is my firm belief that the victim would be better off (both professionally and emotionally) today if she had never come forward. I cannot volunteer to support a policy of punishing victims for coming forward," he continued. "I worry what this institution, and in fact the military, is coming to when the victim of a crime must fear coming forward for fear of reprisal or criminal prosecution. In this case, the victim received seven Class D hits related to the incident. Regardless of the need to keep 'good order and discipline' or the desire to hold individuals responsible for their actions in this training environment, I cannot accept the fact that I played a role in that."

Major Shifrin, who can't comment on Parks's case, says the investigation could be completed in the next month or two.

In early December, Jessica went to live with her aunt and uncle in Kansas. She wanted to get as far away from the academy as she could. But no amount of miles could distance her from the crash landing her military career just suffered. Two days before Christmas, Jessica was in such a deep depression that she checked herself into a hospital emergency room, where two doctors examined her and concluded that she's bipolar. "I was probably bipolar before the academy and just never knew it, but I think the things I went through there aggravated my condition," she says.

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