The War Within

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

To combat a problem he said he was both surprised and embarrassed by, Hosmer established the Center for Character Development to teach cadets the conduct expected of military officers. To encourage victims to come forward, he waived the usual chain of command, allowing cadets to report sex crimes to someone other than their immediate superior. He also had more outdoor lighting installed, introduced the course "Gender, Race and Human Dignity," and made sure all academic and military training programs were reviewed to increase awareness of offensive and criminal behavior.

Over the next eight months, the academy received thirteen more reports of sexual assault. Two were filed by civilian women and the rest by cadets; all involved either male cadets or officers of the academy. One case was dismissed due to a lack of evidence, but the remainder were resolved in a variety of ways. For example, a male cadet convicted by court martial of sodomizing his fiancée was sentenced to six months of confinement and then dismissed; an Air Force captain who had made unwanted sexual advances toward a female freshman received administrative punishment; and a senior cadet was reprimanded for fondling a female classmate.

Hosmer viewed the rise in reporting as a sign of increased trust in the academy and was happy to know that these reports were still lower than at other schools. He remembers reading a study that showed that the number of reported sexual assaults at the academy was much lower than that at the civilian colleges surveyed. "Our numbers were way less than one-fiftieth of other colleges," he says now. "However small it was, though, it was much bigger than I expected for the Air Force Academy."

Jessica Brakey's senior picture.
Jessica Brakey's senior picture.

Cases continued to surface after Hosmer retired in 1994 after 35 years of service. In 1995, Elizabeth Saum accused fellow cadets of holding her down and simulating rape, urinating on her, shaking and slapping her, and choking her until she became unconscious during Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, a POW training program required of every sophomore. Saum sued the academy for violating her constitutional rights, and the case was settled out of court in December 1996. Both parties agreed not to discuss the terms, but resistance training was halted. (The academy is now considering reintroducing the program.)

Also that year, the General Accounting Office published a report on the extent of sexual harassment at the United States Air Force Academy, the United States Military Academy at West Point and the United States Naval Academy. The survey revealed a 19 percent increase in the number of Air Force cadets complaining of recurring sexual harassment since the GAO conducted the same survey two years before. More than a third of the academy's female cadets reported encountering "unwelcome, deliberate physical contact of a sexual nature" during the 1993-94 school year. Many of the cadets also indicated that they feared negative consequences for reporting an assault; fewer than half of those surveyed believed a report would result in a thorough investigation and appropriate discipline for the offender. Results were similar for the other two academies.

A decade and a variety of new programs later, the problem of sexual assault still persists, and many victims continue to fear retribution for coming forward.

Hosmer isn't shocked by that. "I'm disappointed by it because I like to think things are improving, but as a realist, you go forward and backward on these matters," he says. "It doesn't surprise me that, from time to time, pockets of boys' locker-room behavior flares up. My hope is that by talking about it, it will throw the spotlight on further ways that programs can be refined and improved."

When Hosmer's successor, the late Lieutenant General Paul Stein, took over, he recognized that victims still had nowhere to go for support, so he formed Cadets Advocating Sexual Integrity and Education, a program that now consists of 65 to 70 student volunteers who provide assistance to victims and operate a 24-hour hotline to take anonymous calls.

When a cadet is sexually assaulted, it is a CASIE representative who explains the victim's options of receiving counseling, reporting the crime or simply doing nothing. If the rape is reported and no more than 72 hours have passed since the assault, Alma Guzman, a retired Air Force colonel and registered nurse who serves as CASIE's victim-advocate coordinator, accompanies the victim to Memorial Hospital for a rape exam.

However, once a victim reports a sexual assault, the CASIE program can do little beyond offering counseling and some advocacy in getting the cadet -- and witnesses -- absolved of punishment if any academy rules were broken. The "cadet victim/witness assistance and notification procedures" state that "to encourage cadets to report sexual assaults and to ensure they receive available medical and counseling services, cadet victims will generally not be disciplined for self-identified violations of cadet instructions (such as pass violations, unauthorized alcohol consumption, or unauthorized dating) which may have occurred in connection with an assault."

So, if, for example, a victim wants to go on emergency leave after an assault or is worried about getting punished for drinking on the night that an assault occurred, advocates can ask the victim's commanding officer to allow her to leave base for a while or to waive disciplinary action. Major Kelly Phillips-Henry, the psychologist in charge of sexual-assault services at the academy's counseling center and the head of CASIE, says the leaders at the academy typically grant such requests. "We don't get much resistance to that at all," she explains.

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