It Won't Fly
Dear President Bush,
Your appearance at the Air Force Academy's Falcon Stadium on Wednesday will be an unexpected honor for the Class of 2004. You weren't scheduled to address this group of future servicemen and women; you were supposed to come for last year's graduation, but you canceled. And, really, who could blame you? There was no reason to ruin your high approval ratings by aligning yourself with a little domestic crisis like dozens of female cadets being raped at a military academy. You had much bigger issues to address, such as trying to find WMDs in Iraq.
This year is a much better time for a trip to the Rockies. Rape at the Air Force Academy is no longer in the national headlines every day, and four new top officers are firmly in place. Sweeping changes have been instituted, supposedly making the academy a kinder, gentler place. A place in which upperclassmen no longer wield enormous power over underclassmen. A place where cadets who have been raped can come forward without fear of being punished or pushed out -- even if there were assault-related indiscretions such as drinking or fraternization.
To celebrate this, on May 1 the academy held a public event marking the end of April's Sexual Assault Awareness month called "Moving Mountains to End Sexual Assault." Was the biblical reference in the title intentional? Either way, it's going to take faith much bigger than a mustard seed to move this mountain. Why? Because the more things change at the academy, the more they stay the same.
Since the new leaders took over in April 2003, there have been 26 reports of sexual assault at the academy. That's in addition to the 142 sexual-assault allegations that were made between January 1993, when the first rash of sexual assaults came to light, and January 2003. And since I exposed this story almost seventeen months ago, at least sixty women have sought the help of Senator Wayne Allard, the unlikely victims' advocate throughout this scandal. But so far, there has been little justice for the women who say they were blamed, punished or kicked out after reporting the crimes ("The War Within," January 30, 2003).
Remember Jessica Brakey, the whistle-blower in all of this? Well, Joseph Harding, the man she accused of raping her in August 2000, graduated from the academy in 2002 and is now a second lieutenant stationed at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi. Brakey, however, is currently receiving treatment for trauma at an out-of-state facility and is still in limbo over her status as a cadet after challenging her disenrollment. But justice may be forthcoming. Harding faces a hearing to determine whether he will stand trial on one count of rape, one count of indecent assault and two counts of willful dereliction of duty. If he does, he will have to face both Brakey and another cadet who has accused him of assaulting her in 1999. Brakey was unable to attend a hearing on the matter earlier this month, and the other woman has so far refused to face Harding in court. As a result, the hearing was postponed until both Brakey and the other woman are willing or able to testify.
This isn't the first time Harding has been involved in a high-profile case with a female cadet. When Andrea Prasse complained that cadet Matt Rabe had harassed her and then wrongly accused her of lying about how she'd completed a class assignment, Harding was the cadet human-resources officer in charge of investigating her harassment claim. After consulting with Harding and academy officials, Prasse's commanding officer, Major Russell Meyer, e-mailed her this response: "We all feel that both you and Matt need to go through sensitivity training with HR. Again, you can disagree with me here, but I have talked to Lt. Col. Marselle, Lt. Col. Harris, Msgt. Adcox, Maj. Bennett, Maj. Bode, Greg Steenberge, Joe Harding . . . not to mention Gen. Gilbert. We all pretty much see the same things happening here. You failed to set clear boundaries/guidance when Matt irritated you last semester and then put yourself back into a bad situation this semester by being in his group."
Sound familiar? If not, just cross the Potomac and pay a visit to Brigadier General Taco Gilbert, the commandant of cadets who was reassigned to the Pentagon in the wake of his own blame-the-victim comments. When cadet Lisa Ballas went to him in the spring of 2002 to see if the man she'd accused of raping her at an off-campus party several months before would face court-martial, Gilbert faulted her for placing herself in a risky situation. The general later recounted their conservation in an e-mail to Westword, in which he made this now-infamous comment: "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." The young woman's alleged attacker, Max Rodriguez, not only avoided trial, but has recently been informed that he will be commissioned to serve in the Air Force -- a huge blow to Ballas, who is also now an officer.
And please, Mr. President, don't forget DonCosta Seawell, the cadet convicted of raping a disabled civilian woman and accused of raping two cadets. After his early release from a military prison, Seawell was exposed by the vigilante anti-pedophile Internet group perverted-justice.com for trying to sexually entice an adult posing as a fourteen-year-old girl in a chat room. He also contacted his disabled victim -- a clear violation of his probation -- and has landed back in the brig.
The only man to face real punishment for assaulting a female cadet is Douglas Meester, who's scheduled to be court-martialed five days after your visit. He has been charged with rape, forcible sodomy, conduct unbecoming and indecent assault. But is this a case that really exemplifies the decade-old problem at the Air Force Academy? Although forty percent of academy sexual-assault cases since 1993 were found to have involved alcohol, there is some question as to whether the sophomore's accuser, Justine Parks, was really unconscious after a night of body shots in Meester's dorm room. Parks told investigators that she "knew for a fact that [Meester] probably thought what we were doing was consensual." It would appear that this court-martial is an attempt by Air Force officials either to show the public that they don't tolerate behavior such as Meester's or to discredit not only Parks, but all victims.
Sometime after this trial, the Air Force Inspector General is supposed to release the results of its investigation into how top academy brass handled specific cases. Also expected soon are the results of the long-awaited Defense Department Inspector General investigation, a separate inquiry requested by Allard, among others. The women who have gone public in the last year were promised a chance to tell their stories directly to members of Congress as soon as the Defense Department IG report is completed, but it has been delayed time and again.
It may not matter, though, since both IG reports are rumored to absolve the previous leaders of any wrongdoing. Ring a bell? The Air Force General Counsel report from June 2003 found "no systemic acceptance of sexual assault at the academy, no institutional avoidance of responsibility, or systemic maltreatment of cadets who report sexual assault."
Unfortunately, the Fowler Commission, an independent panel assembled at the behest of Congress, discovered the exact opposite. When the seven commission members looked into the academy, they found "a chasm of leadership" there that "helped create an environment in which sexual assault became a part of life." Interesting how the findings differ when an outside body investigates. The commission, named after its chair, former Florida congresswoman Tillie Fowler, also found fault with the academy's honor system, which, as Westword detailed last summer, has seen its share of problems over the years ("Honor Rolled," July 17, 2003). As soon as cadets enter the academy, they agree to abide by this code: We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Those who claim to have been kicked out of the academy on bogus honor charges say the cadets who run the system often go on witch hunts, leaving unpopular cadets at their mercy. Others say that little stock is placed in the toleration clause of the code, as cadets are reluctant to turn in friends for lying, stealing or cheating. Although the Fowler Commission did not recommend changing the honor system, it did note deficiencies in it "that helped contribute to this intolerable environment."
Again, a familiar theme seems to be playing itself out. In recent weeks, seventy cadets were implicated for cheating on a military etiquette exam. So far, twenty cadets -- all of them freshmen -- have admitted to violating the honor code. Six have resigned; the rest are waiting to learn what sanction, if any, they'll face. Cheating scandals rocked the academy in the late 1960s, in 1972 and in 1984, and yet the honor code has only been tinkered with piecemeal. As Sean Dariushnia, a former cadet who claims he was wrongly accused of cheating on a test in 1993, told Westword, "I don't know what causes people to act the way they do at the academy, but it seems to be repeating itself over and over."
Another piece of repeating history is the lax oversight by the Academy Board of Visitors, which was criticized in months past for having little involvement in the institution it's charged with supervising. Because of the rape scandal, boardmembers have agreed to meet quarterly instead of twice a year. Additionally, James Gilmore, a former governor of Virginia and one of six members appointed by you, Mr. President, has vowed that as chairman, he will not allow the board to just be honorary. Despite these outward displays, only eight of the fifteen members attended the last meeting, on May 15; sometime in the next sixty days, those who showed will send you a letter of their own, detailing their views and recommendations for the academy.
More than likely, they'll mention the fact that one in five male cadets still doesn't feel that women belong at the academy, despite the efforts of the past year. The new superintendent, Lieutenant General John Rosa, is surveying cadets twice annually in an effort to gauge the progress being made. A survey conducted on August 27, 2003, showed that 22 percent of male cadets don't think women should be training alongside them. The second survey, given to seniors in March, yielded similar results. Those are the same seniors you'll be addressing on June 2.
You'll probably talk to the Class of 2004 about the crisis they've endured in what was supposed to have been their best year at the academy, and about all of the changes they've adapted to, the sacrifices they've made -- not to mention the challenges that lie ahead in their military careers. The academy can enact the most sensitive policies and the best programs in the world, but until the men there view women as equals, the culture of hostility will continue to thrive. The academy's own numbers prove as much. Colonel Debra Gray, Gilbert's replacement, predicts that it could take eight to ten years for those attitudes, that culture, to change.
I'm looking forward to your graduation speech in 2014.
"The War Within," Julie Jargon's series on the Air Force Academy sex-assault scandal, won this year's national Investigative Reporters and Editors award for investigative reporting and took second place in the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism given by Northwestern University. Jargon is also a finalist for the Livingston Award, which honors journalists under 35; the winner of that contest will be announced June 8 in New York City. This is Jargon's final installment in the Air Force Academy series, which is archived online at www.westword.com. After five years as a staff writer at Westword, the native Denverite will move to Chicago in June.
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