Take These Wings
Andrea Prasse is reviled at the Air Force Academy. Not only was she branded a liar, but she dared to go public about it.
So when the superintendent offered to let her return in February, nine months after she was found guilty of breaking the honor code, cadets blasted her on an Air Force-related Internet message board. "It would be even worse if she makes it into the real AF," a fellow member of the class of 2002 wrote on edodo.org. "I can think of a few people who would even mail their rings back to the Academy if that should happen."
"If she ever is allowed back in (and I hope to God she isn't) put her in a dead-end recruiter job in the middle of BFE where she's isolated from society, family, and the short list of supporters," wrote another classmate. "If she doesn't leave then, boot her for 'legitimate' reasons like inability to meet any of her duty requirements. For the record, honor-vio was plenty legitimate for all of us, but apparently not the press or lawyers."
But her former classmates needn't worry. Andrea would never go back to the Air Force Academy. Not after what happened to her there.
Andrea thought about attending the Air Force Academy for the first time during a plane ride to Florida when she was twelve. She told her mom she wanted to be a flight attendant, and when her mother, Carol Prasse, asked why, Andrea replied, "Because I want to fly." To which her mother responded, "Why not be the pilot?"
When she asked her mom where she could learn to fly, Carol, whose brother was a career Air Force officer and whose father was a longtime reservist, naturally said, "The Air Force Academy." It was a suggestion she would regret a decade later.
The Prasses, both psychologists from Elm Grove, Wisconsin -- Carol works in the Milwaukee Public Schools, and David is an associate dean and professor at Loyola University in Chicago -- impressed on their four daughters the importance of education and hard work. Andrea's dedication in high school paid off when she earned her senator's nomination and got accepted to the Air Force Academy. When she arrived there in the summer of 1998, it seemed she would have a charmed experience: She was selected to be part of a Discovery Channel documentary about life at a military academy, and a camera crew followed her every move throughout basic training.
Once classes began, things quieted down and Andrea, who wanted to become an astronaut, chose to study aeronautical engineering -- one of the hardest majors at the academy. A professor warned her that many students who start out in that department never finish, but she was undaunted, studying hard, training hard and avoiding the parties that got many of her peers in trouble. By her senior year, she was in the top third of her class, had a 2.8 grade-point average, was the third-highest-ranking cadet in her group and was named group director of operations, an important leadership position. And in three years, she'd acquired only twenty demerits -- a relative miracle for most students, considering the hundreds of rules -- for minor offenses ranging from being tardy to class to reporting late to base when her flight back after winter break was delayed.
While she was excelling in school, though, Andrea says she was battling almost constant harassment from Matt Rabe, a fellow aeronautical engineering major her roommate had introduced her to early in her junior year. The two were in several of the same classes and became lab partners. But Matt wanted to be more than that. "I was dating someone at West Point at the time, and Matt would talk badly about him," Andrea says. "After we broke up, I made it clear that I wasn't going to date anyone for a while, and I know I told him I would never date him. I could tell he liked me, because he asked me for E.I. [extra instruction] in kissing."
Andrea tried to ignore Matt's comments and stay focused on their assignments (many of which involved group work), but he was constantly finding fault with her. "Nothing I did met his standards," Andrea says.
The criticism continued into their senior year, when Matt and Andrea again found themselves in many of the same classes and in the same groups. But when Andrea saw that no one else in her department was working as hard as she and Matt were, she started meeting with him less. And that, she says, is when he became very controlling.
Their dorm rooms were across the hall from each other, and he would keep his door open, constantly asking Andrea where she was going and with whom. He told her he needed to know when she'd be back so they could work on assignments together, and demanded that she give him her room key so that he could use her computer.
Arguing with him became exhausting, so Andrea tried ignoring him. But if she didn't answer her door when he knocked, he'd call her; if he couldn't find her in the dorm, he'd send a friend to look for her. When she was able to slip into her room unnoticed, she'd put a towel at the bottom of the door so he wouldn't see her light on. She even had to turn off her cell phone because he continually called. "It got to the point where I couldn't stand being around him," Andrea says. "I tried to distance myself from him, but he wouldn't let me."
It just got worse when she volunteered to be the "CEO" for one of their courses. But Matt wasn't pleased. "He said he'd do it for me because he thought I was too busy," she says. "He really resented me after that, and things started to go downhill. After I'd tell the class what to do, he'd tell them not to listen to me. He totally undermined me." Toward the end of the semester, Andrea spent five hours one Saturday working on a project for that class. When she was done, Matt came into her room, sat down at her computer and deleted all of her work, saying it wasn't good enough. Andrea called her mother in tears that night. "She had called and complained about his behavior before, but I didn't get it. Your kids complain about everything under the sun, and it isn't always as big a deal as they make it," Carol says. "My advice was to try to ignore him. She was going to move into another dorm the next semester, and I just kept telling her to hang in there until then."
But things didn't improve. During the second semester of their senior year, Andrea and Matt were both in AeroEngr 483, an aircraft-engine design class. Once again, Andrea was CEO, and once again, Matt campaigned against her. Only this time, Andrea says, he enlisted a friend, Worachat "Aek" Sattayalekha, in making her life miserable.
"Now Andrea was calling me all the time crying, saying they were constantly calling her, e-mailing her and stopping by her room," Carol says. "All she wanted was for them to leave her alone and stop undermining her work."
Reached on his cell phone, Matt, who graduated from the academy in May 2002, politely declined to comment for this story. But Andrea's version of events is well-documented in hundreds of pages of e-mails, memos and transcripts. In a formal statement to the academy, cadet Thomas Nix detailed the things he witnessed in AeroEngr 483. "[Cadet First Class] Rabe is very critical in all work C1C Prasse does. While he says that he thinks she can and does quality work, he still attacks her work when she finishes. He does this with everyone but goes to an extreme with C1C Prasse," wrote Nix, who described himself and Matt as being "pretty good friends" in another official memo. "Consistently through the semester, C1C Rabe and Sattayalekha badgered C1C Prasse and slowed her down by continually asking for her progress."
Andrea grew so frustrated with their behavior that she stepped down as the class CEO in January 2002. But Matt and Aek, she says, didn't relent. In March, just before spring break, the AeroEngr 483 class was wrapping up its project. The cadets were supposed to design jet-engine parts to present to Honeywell in April, and Matt had suggested drawing the inlet, fan, compressor, turbine, diffuser and nozzle in the context of a completed engine to show how the parts fit together. Since no one else offered to draw the engine, Andrea volunteered.
As soon as she returned from spring break, Andrea showed her engine drawing to the members of her group. Matt asked how she came up with the engine liner -- an extraneous part she used to illustrate how the rest of the components fit together -- and Andrea told him she'd modified it after cutting and pasting it from another group's drawing, which had been turned in prior to break. That was perfectly acceptable for the class, and actually encouraged by the syllabus. "For this assignment, you may work with the following persons, in addition to an instructor in this course: anyone. For this assignment, you may use the following materials produced by other cadets: anything."
But after the two groups presented their engine parts at Honeywell's Arizona office on April 4, Matt became upset because the drawing so closely resembled that of their classmates, Andrea says. And on April 10, Aek told Andrea that he and Matt wanted to talk to her about how she'd copied the other group's engine. Andrea told her professor, Aaron Byerley, that they were implying that she'd cheated, so Byerley spoke with both Aek and the leader of the other group. He then sent Andrea an e-mail: "I am satisfied that there are no honor implications to the engine drawing matter."
The next day, Aek e-mailed Andrea that he wanted to meet with her. Andrea went to her Air Officer Commanding, Major Russell Meyer, instead, and also sent a letter to Byerley. In response, the professor scheduled a class meeting for April 18 to discuss group dynamics. The cadets took turns talking about how they could all put their differences aside and finish the semester. But when it was Matt's turn to speak, he spent 45 minutes questioning her about how she came up with the engine drawing. He asked her the same questions again and again, and she repeated what she'd told him before again and again: that she cut and pasted the liner from the other group's drawing and then modified it to fit into her own. Nothing Andrea said seemed to satisfy him, and out of exasperation she finally exclaimed, "I drew it!"
Over the next few days, Matt continued to raise concerns about Andrea's work, so the professor and AOC told him to e-mail her all of his questions and allow her to respond in writing. She sent her responses to Meyer, Byerley and Major Scott Morton, an adjunct professor in AeroEngr 483. Meyer felt she'd exonerated herself, replying in an e-mail on April 25, "I am totally satisfied with your answers and don't see any honor implications coming from this. I will tell Matt that as well, and caveat that by saying that he can't go searching for lies in a statement just because you feel someone is lying."
As promised, Meyer wrote to Matt later that day. "I have had a chance to read Andrea's response to your questions and although I think that she is too emotional in some of her responses I feel that she is being 100% truthful here. Bottom line: I don't think that she has done anything wrong with the exception to not documenting where the engine parts came from to begin with," Meyer noted. "If you are not happy with her answers at this point, you cannot get someone to confess to something they just didn't do...just because the answers don't satisfy your intent. That is called badgering or coercing. Bottom line: You have two options at this point...1.) you can either live with it or 2.) send it to an honor clarification. Either way you need to get this behind you. If not...it will look as if you are turning this into a 'Witch Hunt.'"
Matt, a member of the 164-cadet honor committee, decided to call for a clarification. The May 3 meeting centered on whether Andrea had lied when she said she "drew" the engine liner. Even though Morton told the cadets at the clarification that the words were merely semantics, Matt and Aek still weren't satisfied and initiated an investigation.
Matt was still contacting Andrea, so Carol Prasse requested that Meyer issue a no-contact order and investigate the alleged harassment. But in an e-mail, Meyer told her the verbal warnings were enough. He'd spoken with a cadet human-resources officer who was investigating the harassment claim, Meyer said, and "there may be some harassment but it mostly stems from working in a group project together. The extent to the harassment that he can see so far is that Matt may not treat Andrea as an equal in the group setting. There are also times when he has been overzealous about contacting/talking to Andrea in the past. We currently see no indications that there is any stocking [sic] going on or that he intends to continue to apply pressure to her in any way shape or form."
Carol insisted that a no-contact order was needed, though, and the academy finally issued one on May 7. The next day, Andrea was formally charged with violating the honor code. But instead of just being charged with lying about how she'd created the engine liner -- the only issue raised during the clarification and therefore the only relevant topic, according to the Air Force Cadet Wing Honor Code Reference Handbook -- she was also charged with cheating. When she refused to sign the charges, the honor officers rewrote them to leave only the lying charge. Despite all the confusion, Andrea felt that the truth would eventually emerge. "I still believed in the honor system, because they tell you it works," she says.
Carol wasn't so sure. She called Brigadier General David Wagie, the dean of faculty, who told her he'd look into it. Brigadier General Taco Gilbert, then-commandant of cadets, got back to her on May 10. "He said he had Andrea's personnel file and that he was questioning her officership," Carol says. "My daughter had been harassed for six months, and no one did anything about it, and now he's questioning her officership? He told me she didn't get along in groups and that people didn't like her, including the class president. Why was he talking to the class president? What does the class president have to do with this?
"I proceeded to tell him about all the harassment she experienced, and he told me it was her fault -- that she put herself in that position because she didn't set clear boundaries and because she volunteered to be in Matt's group! So what -- she asked to be abused by this guy?" Carol recalls. "He said, 'If I walk down a dark alley with hundred-dollar bills hanging out of my pocket, it would be my fault if I got robbed.'" (That's almost identical to what Gilbert told Westword in January about a conversation he'd had with alleged rape victim Lisa Ballas. Partly as a result of those statements, Gilbert was removed from the academy and reassigned to a job in the Pentagon.)
Five days later, Andrea received an e-mail from one of the cadet investigators informing her that her case would go before a Wing Honor Board on May 21 -- just eight days before she was supposed to graduate.
In the meantime, Matt was still stopping by her squadron and asking Andrea's roommate about her, so she noted that in a formal memo to the academy. Meyer e-mailed a response on May 16: "Maj. Bennett, Lt. Col. Marselle and I met today to discuss what we are going to do about Matt's previous behavior. Bottom Line: We conclude that there isn't much we can do at this stage of the game. We all felt that although Matt's behavior wasn't justified last semester, you didn't establish boundaries to keep him at bay.
"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 you put yourself back into a bad situation this semester by being in his group."
At her honor board, Andrea was surprised not to see Aek. Cadets have a right to face their accusers in honor hearings, but Aek had been allowed to leave base. Still, Andrea was hopeful. Surely, she thought, the members of her board would see the ridiculousness of the charge against her. But they didn't.
Carol, who wasn't allowed inside the room, knew the verdict wasn't good as soon as the hearing was over. "Andrea came bursting out of the door screaming, 'How can they do this to me, Mom, how can they do this?' She was hysterical, and she started hyperventilating," Carol remembers. "The cadets on the honor board walked out smiling."
Carol panicked. "I had 26 people coming to Colorado for Andrea's graduation. We had hotel rooms booked and a restaurant reserved, and I hadn't told any of those people anything," she says. "I had a heart attack in February 2001, and one of my thoughts in the ambulance was, 'I am going to make it to Andrea's graduation.'"
But Andrea wouldn't be graduating on time -- if at all. The honor board had recommended disenrollment, and the Prasses had to tell all of their friends and relatives to cancel their flights. "That was the most stressful time of this family's life," Carol says. Although Andrea's fraternal twin sister was getting ready to graduate from the University of Minnesota, no one felt like celebrating.
The day after the hearing, two honor officers sent an e-mail out to all "Wolverines" -- the name for Andrea's squadron mates -- explaining that Andrea had been found guilty and that the honor process works. "This was not one or two people with a vendetta for Cadet Prasse who were out to get her and brought her up on honor," they wrote. "The process that her case went through ensured this."
Andrea tried to bring Matt up on honor charges for lying, but was told by the head of the honor division that she had no substantial evidence. In June, the Prasses asked the Air Force inspector general to investigate the handling of Andrea's case, specifically singling out Gilbert for interfering with the honor process and failing to protect Andrea from harassment.
Andrea returned home while Gilbert was deciding whether to disenroll her or to put her on probation. Then in July, the Prasses received a call from his office: Andrea had 48 hours to report back to the academy. Gilbert had decided on disenrollment. The Prasses immediately appealed that decision with then-superintendent Lieutenant General John Dallager (who has since been reassigned and demoted in the wake of the rape scandal).
While her appeal was under way, Andrea was ordered to remain on campus, where she shelved books in the library. The academy also moved her to Squadron 41, the disciplinary quarters, where she was placed in a room between a drug user and a male cadet who had been found guilty of downloading child porn. The real indignity, though, was having to wear shoulder boards indicating that she had no rank.
Academy officials refused to discuss Andrea's case with Carol, so she went to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which published an article about Andrea's situation on July 21. The academy let Andrea go home the next day. Since then, several other news organizations have picked up the story, including the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press and CBS Evening News.
In January 2003, the Prasses were contacted by a Colorado Springs Gazette reporter who'd been leaked the results of the inspector general's investigation, which had found that every claim they'd made about the mishandling of Andrea's case and Gilbert's role in it was unsubstantiated. "I was like, 'What?' Do they contact me? Do they contact my congressmen? No, they call this reporter," Carol says.
To get the report, Carol had to file a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act; she was told that it would be April before she'd receive it. Meanwhile, Carol's Wisconsin congressmen, who were aware of Andrea's case from the beginning, had been calling and writing to the Air Force secretary.
The Prasses finally heard from Dallager in February, when he called with an offer: Andrea could return to the academy and serve six months' probation under Gilbert's supervision -- as long as she admitted to lying about having drawn the engine liner. If she successfully completed the probation, she could receive her diploma. The Prasses rejected the offer. "I said I would never take probation for this," Andrea says. "At the end of it, I'd have to turn myself in for lying, because it would have been a lie to admit to something I didn't do."
April brought no IG report, but Dallager came back with three more offers: The Prasses could pay the government the $129,000 cost of Andrea's education; Andrea could do six months' probation; or she could be disenrolled, serve six months' enlisted time and then reapply to the academy. If the academy readmitted her, she could graduate, get her commission and go on to pilot school; if the academy denied her second application, she'd be honorably discharged, granted her degree and made to pay back five-sixths of $129,000. The Prasses rejected these offers, too.
At the end of May, as their appeal made its way to the secretary of the Air Force, the Prasses finally received the IG report, which cleared Gilbert of all wrongdoing. To Carol, it appeared as if only selective pieces of evidence were referenced to make Andrea look bad. The course syllabus, which explained that students could use any and all outside work for the project, wasn't even cited.
Gilbert had told the IG that Andrea's "attempt to deceive her classmates by lying, to perhaps get a little additional credit for work that she didn't do, did not bode well for someone we were going to turn loose on the Air Force in eight days."
He also denied that what Andrea went through with Matt constituted harassment. "Gilbert said the conclusion of the investigation was that 'they don't get along, they fight like cats and dogs, but there's no harassment here,'" the report states. And her AOC, Major Meyer, practically faulted Andrea for getting herself into the whole honor mess. "Did I use the term that...it was her fault? I don't remember saying that specifically, but I might have alluded to it, saying that, you know, this whole thing is more or less your fault because, you know, if you would've ever just clarified yourself in a way, it would've never went to a board, it wouldn't ever have gotten this far."
More than a year after she should have graduated, Andrea, now 23 and still technically a cadet, waits to learn the outcome of her case, which rests with the Air Force secretary. For a long time after returning to her parents' house a year ago this week, she was so depressed that she rarely turned off the television or left the couch. Now she's finally starting to get on with her life, volunteering for the local fire department and trying not to be bitter.
"Whenever they did these cadet climate surveys, I always said, 'Get rid of the officers; this should be a cadet-run system,'" Andrea says. "But now I don't think it should have any cadets; they don't understand the legalities of it, and they don't realize the impact it has on people's lives. Maybe they should bring in civilians who have no vested interest in the outcome. Let the taxpayers decide if what the cadet did warrants throwing away a $129,000 education."
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