The War Within

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

CASIE representatives also run educational programs for their peers. During their four years at the academy, cadets receive extensive training on what constitutes sexual assault, how to help a friend who has been assaulted, and how to find help if they themselves are victimized. In their first three days on campus, cadets receive briefings on sexual assault; at the end of their summer basic training, they receive additional briefings; and in the fall of their freshman year, they take a course called "Street Smarts," in which they learn how to protect themselves in all kinds of potentially dangerous situations, including drinking and driving, jogging on campus and traveling off base. Officers go over different scenarios in which cadets could find themselves as a way to teach them preventative measures. "Are you the one girl going to Denver for an overnight in a hotel with five guys? Probably not a good idea. We talk a lot about those risk situations and about making smart decisions," Phillips-Henry says. The peak of the sexual-assault training comes in April, with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. At that time, cadets must take one of 32 offered seminars on sexual assault.

"When you look at other programs across the country at different colleges and comparisons are made, I think you will find that we are one of the top programs for sexual assault in terms of the depth and in terms of the variety of ways students can not only get education, but get help," Phillips-Henry says. "We are the service academy with the most established and elaborate program for sexual assault. We're very proud of our program, and we continue to grow every year. We acknowledge that we have a program and that this is an issue on our campus, unlike some of the other military academies where, if you don't have a program, then you don't have a problem. It's like closing your eyes to it."

However, the United States Naval Academy has a program similar to CASIE, called Sexual Assault Victims Intervention, that offers counseling by trained midshipmen as well as a 24-hour anonymous hotline staffed by two psychologists trained in sexual-assault counseling, says Commander Bill Spann. West Point did not respond to questions about its policies.

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.

Phillips-Henry acknowledges that sexual assault is an under-reported crime. She says only ten to thirteen Air Force cadets come forward each year saying they are sexual-assault victims; that number includes cadets assaulted prior to enrolling, those assaulted by civilians, anonymous calls to the hotline, cadets in CASIE counseling and those pursuing an investigation. Since 1996, the academy has investigated twenty sexual-assault reports. The academy, which was established in 1957 and began admitting women nineteen years later, now enrolls 4,094 cadets, only 671 of whom are females.

In the past year, two cadets have been court-martialed for sexual assaults on civilians. DonCosta Seawell, a senior, pleaded guilty to one charge of forcible sodomy on a civilian and was sentenced to two years of confinement and total forfeiture of all pay and allowances. He was dismissed from the academy and is now serving an eighteen-month sentence in Miramar, a military correctional facility in San Diego. After pleading guilty to one count of obstruction of justice and one count of consensual sodomy on a minor, senior Robert Burdge was sentenced to two months of confinement and total forfeiture of all pay and allowances. He reportedly had sex with a thirteen-year-old girl during a summer sports camp at the academy in 2001. He was dismissed from the academy and has completed a two-month sentence in another correctional facility.

"I think we reflect society, and what happens in society is going to happen on any college campus. It does happen at a lower rate here," Phillips-Henry says. "The perception of a problem is going to vary from person to person. Understandably, cadets who have been through it clearly see it as a problem. And who wouldn't, having experienced something like that?"

The issue of sexual assault at the academy, says superintendent Lieutenant General John Dallager, has "my personal attention and my personal involvement." Even one case of sexual assault, he adds, "is too many."

The Air Force is in Lisa Ballas's blood. She was born on an Air Force base in England in 1981 and grew up just outside Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Her father is Air Force Academy class of 1971, and both her uncle and grandfather had their wings. So her father, who retired from the service after a twenty-year career that included a Vietnam tour, was proud when his only daughter decided to continue the tradition.

"I came out to visit Colorado Springs as a sophomore in high school and fell in love with the Air Force Academy," says Lisa, now a 21-year-old senior. "I knew it was the best place to go to become an officer."

For her, the academy isn't about an all-expenses-paid education, a few years of service and then civilian life; it's her entree into a military career. She wants to become a fighter pilot, and to do that, she needs nine months of general flight training before choosing an aircraft -- probably the F-15E or F-16 -- and then a few more months of instruction on it. But first, she needs to get through the next semester. She can't wait for graduation in May. Can't wait to be done with the miserable period that started on that unlucky day in October.

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