Legal Eagles

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

One of the first steps the academy took in changing the culture was to stop the belittling way in which upperclassmen treated underclassmen. Freshmen were at constant risk of being screamed at and disciplined by any upperclassman they encountered. "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," recalled Jean Murrell, one of two reservists formerly stationed at the academy who told Westword last April that they couldn't understand why the academy was so different from the Air Force.

"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," notes Major Joe Grisham ("Top Guns," April 3, 2003).

Because of feedback like that, Roche removed some of the power the older cadets held while new academy leaders, such as commandant of cadets Brigadier General Johnny Weida, further refined cadet roles. The academy, Weida says, has "reshaped the whole environment and thinking from one of a rite of initiation, a rite of passage where you could demean and harass cadets and you could yell at them and that was your primary tool in your leadership kit bag, to one of positive motivation and inspiration -- a model that is used in our Air Force, quite frankly. As I've told our cadets, 'Why should I let you use leadership tools and techniques that you can't use on the day you graduate?'"

Aim high: Former Air Force Academy cadet and 
whistleblower Jessica Brakey.
John Johnston
Aim high: Former Air Force Academy cadet and whistleblower Jessica Brakey.

The academy modeled its new Officer Development System after that of the Military Academy at West Point, which professionalized its plebe system in the mid-1990s. Older Air Force cadets will now act as mentors rather than masters. The school is also doing away with the cadet disciplinary system, which punishes cadets for everything from failing to shine their shoes to drinking in the dorms. Under that system, cadets who violated academy rules -- no matter how minor -- were given demerits and made to march tours on base while carrying rifles; once cadets accumulated enough demerits, they had to appear before a military review board that would consider them for disenrollment. All cadet infractions will now fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

"On the high end of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, you could still disenroll that cadet, but instead of the cadet meeting that board with 200 demerits and 300 tours, he may have four letters of counseling and one letter of reprimand," Weida explains. "The Air Force disciplinary system is more developmental; it's more positive, whereas the cadet disciplinary system over the years has been viewed in kind of a negative punishment aspect."

The academy's new superintendent, Lieutenant General John Rosa, says the changes aren't intended merely to make the academy a kinder, gentler place; bringing the school in line with the Air Force will also help officers identify problems like sexual assault. "Part of our plan here as we lay the foundation for these next several years is to not find ourselves in a similar situation ten years from now," Rosa explains. "We went through this in 1993. We had a sexual-assault issue, and General [Brad] Hosmer, the superintendent at the time, did some great work, and over time, for whatever reason, we found ourselves back in a similar situation."

Past academy leaders, including former superintendent Dallager, who was demoted as a result of the scandal (and has recently been appointed to a foundation that raises money for academy scholarships), claimed they were taken aback by the severity of the problem. Rosa vows not to let that happen again and is changing the way the academy tracks trends, such as disciplinary problems, academic performance and reports of criminal activity. "If we align those programs at the academy with what we're doing in the Air Force, it's what all the rest of us have lived with, and it's what all of us understand, so when we start to have problems, when we start to deviate from norms, we'll know that," Rosa says.

Since April, when the first of the new leaders arrived, the academy has received 21 reports of sexual assault; some took place a year or more in the past, but twelve are new assaults. Rosa reviews the numbers regularly and will survey cadets twice annually about the culture at the academy. He also plans to survey faculty and staff, as well as Air Force commanders, in an effort to determine how graduates are faring in service.

Jessica and her attorneys believe that the academy's problems won't be corrected until its former leaders are brought to justice. "They need to apportion responsibility where it needs to be. Cadets can smell hypocrisy a mile away, and when the Air Force admits there was a problem and then refuses to name any of the individuals who were responsible for it, it's hypocrisy at its worst," Madonia says.

Some cadets and victims'-rights advocates certainly smelled hypocrisy when a working group of Air Force investigators assembled by Roche determined last June that there was no problem. The group, led by Air Force General Counsel Mary Walker, found "no systemic acceptance of sexual assault at the academy, no institutional avoidance of responsibility, or systemic maltreatment of cadets who report sexual assault." That was followed in September by vastly different findings from an independent panel led by former Florida congresswoman Tillie Fowler. The panel, which was formed at the request of Congress, found a "chasm in leadership" at the academy that "helped create an environment in which sexual assault became a part of life."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help