Legal Eagles

A year later, these female cadets are still waiting for an apology. A lawsuit may be their only hope.

A year after Westword broke the story of the biggest scandal in Air Force Academy history, the school's new leaders are working tirelessly to implement programs and alter a climate that's been described as hostile toward women. In fact, they hope that one day the academy will be regarded as a model of how to handle such a crisis.

But former cadets say it will take a lot more than new policies and procedures to make that happen. It may take a lawsuit.

Since Jessica Brakey, Lisa Ballas and Justine Parks came forward last January with their stories of rape and retribution ("The War Within," January 30, 2003), dozens of other women have also gone public. Sixty women contacted Senator Wayne Allard seeking a solution to the problem, and soon everyone from the New York Times to Oprah Winfrey was interviewing cadets. Allard and other congressmen called for the ouster of top officials and demanded investigations, one of which found that there had been 142 sexual-assault reports at the academy since 1993, when the institution had last revamped its policies after several rapes. But many women said that after they reported incidents in recent years, their assailants received little or no punishment, and they themselves were disciplined because they had been drinking. Others claimed they'd been pushed out of the academy after they reported being raped.

As public pressure mounted, top Air Force brass reacted. In March, Air Force Secretary James Roche removed the top four officers at the school and issued the "Agenda for Change," a lengthy document calling for reforms that range from clustering women's dorm rooms together to altering the power structure among cadets.

But while efforts are being made to protect the women who are on campus, to date nothing has been done to compensate the victims for their lost education or get them counseling. The academy hasn't so much as apologized to them. "That would mean a lot to me. For them to formally say 'sorry' would be a huge load off my chest," Jessica says. She would also like to see the alleged rapists investigated because, in many cases, they went on to graduate and serve in the Air Force.

"We've not yet filed our complaint, but if the Air Force doesn't step up and do the right thing, we will," says Joe Madonia, a Chicago attorney who, along with Atlanta lawyer Jim Cox, is representing seven former cadets.

"We should be given the same rights as everyone else," Jessica adds. "Just because you're in the military doesn't mean you shouldn't have the right to justice."

But a 1950 U.S. Supreme Court decision resulted in the Feres Doctrine, which makes it difficult for servicemen and women to sue the military. The doctrine, which came out of three cases in which soldiers were killed or injured while on active duty, protects the government from being sued "for injuries to servicemen where the injuries arise out of or are in the course of activity incident to service." Madonia, however, doesn't believe the doctrine's intent is to shield the military from culpability for crimes that shouldn't be expected to arise during active duty -- such as rape. "I feel that the judiciary, when given the opportunity, will agree," he says.

During a telephone conference with Pentagon leaders months ago, Cox tried to discuss the possibility of restitution. "We did not pursue those discussions when it became clear that their attitude continued to be adversarial," the Atlanta attorney says. "The attitude was, ŒNo matter what these women have been through or how culpable the leaders are, why should we talk to them if we can beat them in court -- or at least try?'

"We have not seen anything from the Air Force that indicates to us that they're prepared to treat these women as victims who have suffered and need help putting their lives back together."

Jessica is a good example of a cadet who could benefit from some help. She is in the unusual position of being part cadet, part civilian. She has been in limbo since October 31, 2002, when then-superintendent John Dallager recommended to Roche that she be discharged because emotional problems made her unfit for service -- something she attributes to the stress of being raped by a cadet. But Roche still hasn't decided whether to discharge her, so she can't qualify for veterans' benefits. Jessica is entitled to cadet benefits, but she has been battling with the academy for months to reimburse her health-care providers for counseling services ("Once Bitten, Twice Shy," March 13, 2003). Only in recent weeks has the academy started paying the bills. "I've had collection agencies after me for thousands of dollars," Jessica says.

She wishes the Air Force would give her the diploma she was only months from getting when she was kicked out. Jessica, who lives in Denver and is currently unemployed, wants to enroll in a clinic in Menlo Park, California, that specializes in treating veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder. But she also wants to help force the academy to change its culture -- especially considering that a recent survey revealed that 22 percent of male cadets don't believe women should be serving alongside them.

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