The War Within

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

"What I said was that I have four sisters, three daughters and a wife and that I view sexual assault as if it happened to them," Brigadier General Gilbert responded in writing. "I take all reports seriously. I investigate every allegation and take action on every assault. That said, there was no justification for the alleged assault on her. However, she did engage in some very high-risk behavior that night. Again, the behavior in no way justifies what happened to her, but when you put yourself in situations with increased risk, you have to take increased precautions to mitigate those risks.

"For example, if I walk down a dark alley with hundred-dollar bills hanging out of my pockets, it doesn't justify my being attacked or robbed, but I certainly increased the risk by doing what I did," Gilbert continued. "The behavior she engaged in is not the behavior we condone for our cadets or our officers in the Air Force. This standard isn't just for the Air Force Academy; it's an Air Force standard."

For the first time since the investigation began, Lisa broke down and cried. But her tears didn't sway Gilbert, who agreed with the investigating officer's recommendation and dropped the charges against Max.

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.

With her case dismissed, Lisa felt her only hope for an appeal rested with the rape kit, so she asked the academy's legal department for it. "Legal said they didn't have it and to call OSI, so I called OSI, and they said Legal has it." Frustrated, Lisa filed a formal request for the evidence in May. She didn't receive a response for almost six months. In a letter dated November 1, 2002, the academy's Information Release Division explained, "Your FOIA request was received on 15 May 2002 but was misplaced and overlook [sic] until 30 October 2002 we do apologize for the delay in responding to you sooner. Unfortunately, we have researched our records and [the file] is not here, we have gone to the detachment and requested the complete investigative file." (Major Shifrin says he doesn't know what happened to her rape kit but that in general, that kind of evidence is not releasable under the Freedom of Information Act.)

Just because the case didn't go to a court martial doesn't mean the academy forgot about Max, however. They decided to hold an administrative hearing, in which the prosecution has to show only a preponderance of the evidence rather than the court-martial standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Shifrin can't comment on Max's case or divulge when his hearing will take place, other than to say he's not currently at the academy. An administrative action can result in a cadet being discharged under honorable, general or other than honorable conditions; only a court martial can end in a dishonorable discharge. (Max did not respond to interview requests from Westword).

Despite what she's been through, Lisa remains dedicated to the Air Force. "I'm not trying to take down the academy," she says. "I just want to fix a problem."

To be part of the solution, Lisa started volunteering with the CASIE program and plans to receive training this summer with the El Paso County Sheriff's Department to become a victim's advocate. She even applied to be the program manager of CASIE next year. Her plan was to return to the academy next fall as a lieutenant and run the program for a year, delaying her flight training.

But a couple of weeks after she was offered the job, Major Phillips-Henry asked if she intended to join a class-action suit rumored to be starting against the academy. The major advised her that she'd have to choose between her new job and filing suit. Lisa assured Phillips-Henry that her loyalty lay with the Air Force.

The academy, it seemed, was getting nervous. There were other young women who had recently reported being raped, and some of them were talking about suing.

Ever since she was a little girl, Jessica Brakey looked to the United States Air Force Academy to provide the stability she never had growing up. Jessica was born in Denver in 1980, the daughter of an African-American father and a Caucasian mother, who separated when she was a year old.

Jessica led a nomadic lifestyle growing up; she bounced around the Denver metro area, going from one family member's house to another. Amid the instability of her childhood and adolescence, Jessica sought solace in school, throwing herself into honors classes and extracurricular activities, including a part-time job for Congressman Dan Schaefer. Driving her hard work was the hope of one day becoming a cadet.

Jessica knew she wanted to go to the Air Force Academy after a fifth-grade field trip to Colorado Springs. "I idolized the Air Force," says Jessica, who was attracted to the discipline of military life and the idea of serving her country. After graduating from Englewood High, Jessica attended ten months of Air Force Academy prep school and then enrolled in the academy.

For the first year, the academy lived up to Jessica's expectations. But things started to change just before her sophomore year, when she went to a required field training at Jack's Valley. For three weeks every summer, approximately 200 cadets go to the base's outdoor training facility to learn what it's like to live in tents and subsist on dry food. The exercise is led by upperclassmen, and in August 2000, one of the cadets in charge was "Kevin," who hung around Jessica a lot -- perhaps, she says, because he is also biracial, and "there aren't many of us at the academy."

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