Top Guns

The Air Force Academy is changing its leadership -- but can it transform its culture?

Jean Murrell is skeptical about the changes in store at the United States Air Force Academy. She hopes they'll be successful, but she doesn't think they address the core problem: a culture in which upperclassmen have almost complete control over underclassmen.

As a public-health officer at the academy, Murrell made sure cadets received proper nutrition, got enough sleep and were taken care of when they fell ill. But as soon as she became eligible for retirement in August 2001, she quit, disenchanted with an institution she says runs young people ragged with a rigorous military-training and academic schedule.

More than anything else, though, Murrell was concerned with the hazing. "God forbid you use the word 'hazing' down there," she says. "They say, 'It's not hazing -- it's training.'"

Despite sweeping changes at the Air Force Academy, 
Jean Murrell still worries for cadets' safety.
Jonathan Castner
Despite sweeping changes at the Air Force Academy, Jean Murrell still worries for cadets' safety.

Each year, incoming freshmen enter a world in which approximately 3,000 men and women barely older than themselves have total control. "Any one of those sophomores, juniors and seniors can scream at you as a freshman," says Murrell, a retired master sergeant who served in the Army Reserve for fifteen years, the Colorado Air National Guard for seven and the Air Force Reserve for four. "If they see you walking down the hall, they can ask you what's on the menu for dinner, and if you don't know, you have to drop down and give them twenty."

One day at Jack's Valley, an outdoor training facility on campus, Murrell saw an exhausted-looking underclassman running around holding a rifle above his head. It was about 5 p.m., at the end of a full day of training. "I asked a cadet what he was doing, and she said, 'He thought he was being hazed. We're showing him what hazing really is,'" Murrell recalls.

In an effort to avoid that type of retribution, she says, it's not uncommon for freshmen to urinate in the sinks in their rooms rather than venture out into hallways and risk running into upperclassmen.

Several of the AFA's female rape victims who have come forward in recent weeks say they were assaulted after following orders from upperclassmen. Jessica Brakey, who blew the whistle on the scandal, says she was raped just before her sophomore year by an upperclassman who came into her tent one night during a field-training exercise and told her to follow him up a dark road. And freshman Justine Parks says she was raped in an upperclassman's dorm room ("The War Within," January 30, 2003).

But this isn't the way it works in the rest of the military, where officers answer to one person above them in the chain of command. "In officer training school, a commissioned officer is responsible for fifty or so trainees. You report directly to him, and he's responsible for you. I didn't see that at the academy," says Major Joe Grisham, a reservist formerly stationed at the academy who now works in Air Force Special Operations Headquarters in Hurlburt Field, Florida. "The upperclassmen were not held responsible for their actions or for those of the underclassmen. At the academy, the cadets don't have access to officers; it's the cadets who run everything."

"Officers leave the academy at 4 p.m. and don't return until 7 a.m.," Murrell adds. "It's a free-for-all at night."

That's about to change. Air Force Secretary James Roche and Air Force Chief of Staff General John Jumper last week unveiled several reforms intended to improve the climate and make the academy safer for women, including restricting the blanket power upperclassmen have over freshmen. During summer basic training, only seniors or juniors will be allowed to interact with freshmen; in the first half of the fall semester, only seniors will be able to discipline freshmen; later in the semester, only certain juniors will be selected to oversee freshmen in training exercises; sophomores will interact with freshmen for academic tutoring purposes only; and any discipline of a freshman by a sophomore will have to be authorized by a senior.

"It's wonderful that they're trying to change things, but they still aren't addressing the real issue, which is that there's no punishment if they do haze," Murrell says. "And they need to have a system for reporting hazing. We need to be mentoring these kids instead of bullying them. We have a mentoring program in the Air Force: When you get assigned to a new base, someone shows you around. But not at the academy."

Murrell says that when she pressed for changes in the cadet power structure, she met with resistance and outright hostility from the people in charge -- all of whom have since completed their tours at the academy and are stationed elsewhere. "When I went to my non-commissioned officer in charge and asked her how she can tolerate the abuse that goes on, she said, 'I can't; that's why I stay in my office,'" Murrell recalls.

So she tried talking to her chief master sergeant, who told her, "Jean, you need to keep your mouth shut, because you're making people mad," she says. And in a performance evaluation, Murrell's commander noted that she "needs to gain an understanding for the academy's philosophy."

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