The War Within

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

Major Shifrin says the investigation into Jessica's rape allegation is now closed; since it's part of the larger case involving her retention at the academy, however, he can't comment on the outcome. Jessica herself says she was never told what happened with her rape investigation, so all she can do now is wait for the secretary of the Air Force's decision.

As soon as she learned that she was being considered for disenrollment, Jessica turned to Senator Tom Tancredo, whose constituent advocate, Terry Van Keuren, obliged. "Whenever any constituent comes to us for any matter, we try to help them," Van Keuren explains.

His assistance came in the form of a November 1 letter to the secretary of the Air Force requesting that Jessica get a fair shake. "All we're trying to do is make sure she can continue her course of studies. Whether she's commissioned or not is something else," Van Keuren says. "And if she's dismissed, we want to make sure the government doesn't try to get her to pay them back."

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.

In addition, Jessica is contemplating filing a class-action suit against the academy but doesn't know if enough cadets will join her. And although she's thinking of enrolling in a private military academy next year, she's not sure whether she'll ever wear a uniform again. "Do I even want to be in the military anymore?" Jessica asks herself. "I don't know."

Lisa Ballas went home for Christmas break feeling hopeful that she could make a difference for sexual-assault victims at the Air Force Academy. She was looking forward to returning for one more semester and then coming back next fall to manage the CASIE program.

But a few days after returning to Michigan, she got a call from a colonel informing her that she wouldn't be heading the CASIE program after all. The colonel, she says, did not offer her a reason. And the week she returned to school, she received an e-mail message informing her that she could no longer even serve as a CASIE volunteer.

Major Phillips-Henry explains that the possibility of Lisa being party to a lawsuit was reason enough not to offer her the job; had Lisa been heading the program -- or even involved as a volunteer -- she would have had access to confidential information about sexual-assault victims. And that, Phillips-Henry says, would have posed a conflict of interest.

Now Lisa feels hurt and betrayed. Her only comfort is knowing she's not alone. Ever since her case went to hearing and she started volunteering with CASIE, she's met other young women who have been assaulted. "A lot of girls have left the academy and are coming to me with similar situations," she says. As for cadets who are still there, "lots of them have told me they won't even report what happened to them because of the treatment I've gotten."

Lieutenant General Dallager is now trying to change that. Over the past two weeks, he has been seeking feedback from cadets about the issue of sexual assault on campus. He started by sending out a survey to all cadets regarding the climate of sexual harassment and assault on base, the programs for cadets who have been victimized, and their confidence and trust in the academy's leaders. An overwhelming number of cadets -- about 70 percent -- responded.

"By and large, there's pretty good confidence in the CASIE system," he says, adding, "To be quite frank, we can probably make the program even stronger."

Dallager would not go into much detail about what the cadets said in the survey or how the academy can improve its programs, because he wants to discuss the findings with cadets first. The superintendent also met last week with victims and with small groups of cadets in each class to gauge their opinions on sexual assault.

"What we're working on very diligently here is to expand the dialogue," Dallager says. "It's a subject that, to be quite frank, most folks are not real comfortable with and prefer not to talk a whole lot about, but we're talking about it, and out of those discussions with cadets [and officers], we intend to do something that improves the education process, the climate here, as well as some of the activities we do here," he says. "This is not about putting our heads in the sand; this is not about wishing it will go away.... We do have, unfortunately, sexual assaults here, and so it's got my personal attention, and I hope it has theirs, and then we're going to work on it together."

Lisa hopes so, too. "I want to see more people report, and that can only happen if you create trust in the system. I want to see victims who have depression or post-traumatic stress as a result of a sexual assault get help, because right now, depression and PTS get you kicked out of the academy," she says, adding that she doesn't think victims who have been raped while intoxicated should be punished, either.

"And I'm willing to risk ruining my career over this, even though I don't think I should have to."

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