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In the Eye of the Storm

It was surreal walking into the Air Force Academy's Arnold Hall the night of February 27. Almost four months earlier, I'd begun talking to cadets -- two former, one current -- about rape at the academy ("The War Within," January 30). They told me how they'd been punished, ostracized or kicked out for reporting what happened to them. They told me there were more women just like them -- lots more.

In January I had walked across this same terrazzo for interviews with several academy officials. Now here I was again, only this time I wasn't alone. Reporters from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Denver dailies and several local radio and television stations were there to cover the speech of Air Force Secretary James Roche.

The number of women coming forward -- to me, to other reporters and to United States senators - had also grown to dozens. The spotlight had widened. The secretary of the Air Force began an investigation two weeks ago, the Defense Department inspector general was asked to open another, and congressmen all over the country were jumping on the bandwagon, reiterating the call for action.

Tonight would mark an important step in the process. Roche, who had planned months ago to address cadets as part of the academy's annual National Character and Leadership Symposium, couldn't have picked a better time to discuss moral courage in the armed services. Before he took to the stage, cadets started gathering in the lobby. Although the speech was geared toward all students, the auditorium could seat only upperclassmen; the rest watched via television link elsewhere on base. When I walked to the water fountain across the lobby, I could feel the curious stares of male cadets. Big guys not much younger than I. Most wearing uniforms, but others dressed in dark-blue hooded sweatshirts or battle fatigues.

Inside the auditorium, a band was playing James Brown tunes. The upbeat music seemed an odd and inappropriate prelude to such a somber evening. Roche's talk centered almost entirely on the issue of sexual assault, and he had harsh words for the men sitting before him. "Nothing angers me more than bad officership," he told them. "Nothing." He went on to challenge the men to protect their sisters at the academy, who make up a stunning minority -- 671 out of more than 4,000 -- and told them that only they can "fix this mess."

After the speech, several cadets stood up and asked Roche questions: Would academy traditions get lost in the midst of all the time and attention now being paid to sexual assault? Could Roche promise not to punish victims for drinking or other honor-code violations that occur in relation to an assault? Are the claims of the women now coming forward and reporting rape being investigated to make sure they're true? What about all of the upstanding men who would never dream of harming a woman? This last question received wild applause from a cadet wing that's come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks.

Roche assured them that the entire academy is not out of control. "There's a fringe that's out of control," he explained. "It's the Lord of the Flies, and it cannot continue."

When he was done talking, a few cadets stood up clapping. Heads turned and people wondered whether they, too, should rise. Eventually, everyone did, though it was by no means a pep rally.

I sat there, looking out over the sea of shaved heads. Thousands of them. Few ponytails or braids stood out.

 
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