The War Within
Lisa Ballas arrived at the party in good spirits. In fact, everyone there was. Their school football team just beat the University of Wyoming 24-13, steaks were grilling, the television was tuned to sports, and they were ready to celebrate.
The group of about fifteen students gathered at the Aurora home toasted a friend who was leaving school, then split up, some of them heading down to the basement to play Twister while others watched television as a card game started in the kitchen. But this wasn't just any college party. It was thrown by and for cadets of the United States Air Force Academy, a place where young men and women vow to live honorably and take oaths against lying, stealing and cheating. A place where every decision has a consequence.
On this October 13, 2001, night, twenty-year-old Lisa decided to drink seven vodka-and-lemonade cocktails. She threw up about three hours into the party; feeling better afterward, she decided to join the poker game -- despite its drink-if-you-lose stakes. Not long after, her friends upped the ante to an item of clothing. Lisa protested at first, then went along with them and ended up disrobing down to her underwear.
But that was far enough for her; she got dressed and went to get a glass of water. On the way, cadet Max Rodriguez stopped her. Although she'd just met him earlier that evening, she knew of him through friends and knew that he was engaged to be married, so when he took her by the wrist and led her out of the kitchen and into the master bathroom, she didn't think much of it. Not even when he started kissing her -- or when she kissed him back. But she was hazy from the alcohol, and things started moving fast -- too fast. He started touching her and taking off her clothes. Was the room spinning? He lifted her onto the countertop, and the fog started to clear. Lisa finally understood the situation.
She told him to stop. "I was in incredible pain, and I looked down and he was in me," says Lisa, who planned to stay a virgin until marriage. "I said, 'No,' and he immediately kissed me and pushed me against the mirror."
Again, she claims, she told him to stop and pushed him away. "He started trying to calm me down, brushing my face and hair. He leaned me back against the counter and inserted his penis again," she recalls. "I said, 'Stop it!' and I pushed him away again."
Just then, the cadet hosting the party knocked on the door and told them to leave his parents' bathroom. Max finally let Lisa go. She got dressed and found her trusted friend Justin Chandler. When another friend, Adam Keith, discovered them, Lisa was sobbing, and she asked him to go with her to straighten up any mess.
"Once in the bathroom, I turned on the light and saw a good amount of blood smeared around in an area on the counter, and about six spots where nine or so drops had fallen onto the floor," Adam recalled later in a sworn statement. "Lisa seemed really embarrassed at this time, and I could tell she was not expecting to see what she did when I turned on the light. She frantically went over to the counter and immediately began wiping up the blood off the counter, trying to clean it up as fast as she could so I wouldn't have to see it."
When Adam pointed out the blood spots on the carpet, Lisa asked him to help her find cleaning supplies. While they were letting carpet cleaner soak in, "Lisa totally broke down crying," he noted. "She was sobbing really hard, and I just hugged her to provide support. She kept saying stuff like, 'I didn't know where he was taking me. He said, "Follow me, follow me," and I just followed him. I didn't know that this was the parents' bedroom. I didn't know that he locked the door. I feel so bad. At least nothing happened; at least nothing happened. I am glad that nothing happened.'
"This upset me a little bit, because it was very clear from the blood that something did happen, and I knew that she was just in denial," Adam continued. "She kept sobbing really hard, and I was surprised when she said, 'I told him NO! Three times, I told him NO! I tried to push him away.' She said that like four times in a row."
The next day, Lisa Ballas returned to Colorado Springs and reported the incident, beginning a three-month investigation and a chain of events that left her feeling betrayed by an academy she grew up admiring.
This isn't the first time one cadet has accused another of rape. Sexual-assault allegations started flaring up at the academy in 1993 after a freshman reported being assaulted on base the night of Valentine's Day. Although the attackers were never positively identified -- and some were suspected to be civilians -- superintendent Lieutenant General Brad Hosmer held an unprecedented private meeting with all 501 female cadets. He asked who knew of other women assaulted at school; 205 of them said they did. Eight days later, Hosmer held a rare press conference, in which he announced that two more female cadets had come forward with reports of sexual assault. "We have a problem at the Air Force Academy," Hosmer told the reporters. "This problem has existed for some time."
To combat a problem he said he was both surprised and embarrassed by, Hosmer established the Center for Character Development to teach cadets the conduct expected of military officers. To encourage victims to come forward, he waived the usual chain of command, allowing cadets to report sex crimes to someone other than their immediate superior. He also had more outdoor lighting installed, introduced the course "Gender, Race and Human Dignity," and made sure all academic and military training programs were reviewed to increase awareness of offensive and criminal behavior.
Over the next eight months, the academy received thirteen more reports of sexual assault. Two were filed by civilian women and the rest by cadets; all involved either male cadets or officers of the academy. One case was dismissed due to a lack of evidence, but the remainder were resolved in a variety of ways. For example, a male cadet convicted by court martial of sodomizing his fiancée was sentenced to six months of confinement and then dismissed; an Air Force captain who had made unwanted sexual advances toward a female freshman received administrative punishment; and a senior cadet was reprimanded for fondling a female classmate.
Hosmer viewed the rise in reporting as a sign of increased trust in the academy and was happy to know that these reports were still lower than at other schools. He remembers reading a study that showed that the number of reported sexual assaults at the academy was much lower than that at the civilian colleges surveyed. "Our numbers were way less than one-fiftieth of other colleges," he says now. "However small it was, though, it was much bigger than I expected for the Air Force Academy."
Cases continued to surface after Hosmer retired in 1994 after 35 years of service. In 1995, Elizabeth Saum accused fellow cadets of holding her down and simulating rape, urinating on her, shaking and slapping her, and choking her until she became unconscious during Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, a POW training program required of every sophomore. Saum sued the academy for violating her constitutional rights, and the case was settled out of court in December 1996. Both parties agreed not to discuss the terms, but resistance training was halted. (The academy is now considering reintroducing the program.)
Also that year, the General Accounting Office published a report on the extent of sexual harassment at the United States Air Force Academy, the United States Military Academy at West Point and the United States Naval Academy. The survey revealed a 19 percent increase in the number of Air Force cadets complaining of recurring sexual harassment since the GAO conducted the same survey two years before. More than a third of the academy's female cadets reported encountering "unwelcome, deliberate physical contact of a sexual nature" during the 1993-94 school year. Many of the cadets also indicated that they feared negative consequences for reporting an assault; fewer than half of those surveyed believed a report would result in a thorough investigation and appropriate discipline for the offender. Results were similar for the other two academies.
A decade and a variety of new programs later, the problem of sexual assault still persists, and many victims continue to fear retribution for coming forward.
Hosmer isn't shocked by that. "I'm disappointed by it because I like to think things are improving, but as a realist, you go forward and backward on these matters," he says. "It doesn't surprise me that, from time to time, pockets of boys' locker-room behavior flares up. My hope is that by talking about it, it will throw the spotlight on further ways that programs can be refined and improved."
When Hosmer's successor, the late Lieutenant General Paul Stein, took over, he recognized that victims still had nowhere to go for support, so he formed Cadets Advocating Sexual Integrity and Education, a program that now consists of 65 to 70 student volunteers who provide assistance to victims and operate a 24-hour hotline to take anonymous calls.
When a cadet is sexually assaulted, it is a CASIE representative who explains the victim's options of receiving counseling, reporting the crime or simply doing nothing. If the rape is reported and no more than 72 hours have passed since the assault, Alma Guzman, a retired Air Force colonel and registered nurse who serves as CASIE's victim-advocate coordinator, accompanies the victim to Memorial Hospital for a rape exam.
However, once a victim reports a sexual assault, the CASIE program can do little beyond offering counseling and some advocacy in getting the cadet -- and witnesses -- absolved of punishment if any academy rules were broken. The "cadet victim/witness assistance and notification procedures" state that "to encourage cadets to report sexual assaults and to ensure they receive available medical and counseling services, cadet victims will generally not be disciplined for self-identified violations of cadet instructions (such as pass violations, unauthorized alcohol consumption, or unauthorized dating) which may have occurred in connection with an assault."
So, if, for example, a victim wants to go on emergency leave after an assault or is worried about getting punished for drinking on the night that an assault occurred, advocates can ask the victim's commanding officer to allow her to leave base for a while or to waive disciplinary action. Major Kelly Phillips-Henry, the psychologist in charge of sexual-assault services at the academy's counseling center and the head of CASIE, says the leaders at the academy typically grant such requests. "We don't get much resistance to that at all," she explains.
CASIE representatives also run educational programs for their peers. During their four years at the academy, cadets receive extensive training on what constitutes sexual assault, how to help a friend who has been assaulted, and how to find help if they themselves are victimized. In their first three days on campus, cadets receive briefings on sexual assault; at the end of their summer basic training, they receive additional briefings; and in the fall of their freshman year, they take a course called "Street Smarts," in which they learn how to protect themselves in all kinds of potentially dangerous situations, including drinking and driving, jogging on campus and traveling off base. Officers go over different scenarios in which cadets could find themselves as a way to teach them preventative measures. "Are you the one girl going to Denver for an overnight in a hotel with five guys? Probably not a good idea. We talk a lot about those risk situations and about making smart decisions," Phillips-Henry says. The peak of the sexual-assault training comes in April, with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. At that time, cadets must take one of 32 offered seminars on sexual assault.
"When you look at other programs across the country at different colleges and comparisons are made, I think you will find that we are one of the top programs for sexual assault in terms of the depth and in terms of the variety of ways students can not only get education, but get help," Phillips-Henry says. "We are the service academy with the most established and elaborate program for sexual assault. We're very proud of our program, and we continue to grow every year. We acknowledge that we have a program and that this is an issue on our campus, unlike some of the other military academies where, if you don't have a program, then you don't have a problem. It's like closing your eyes to it."
However, the United States Naval Academy has a program similar to CASIE, called Sexual Assault Victims Intervention, that offers counseling by trained midshipmen as well as a 24-hour anonymous hotline staffed by two psychologists trained in sexual-assault counseling, says Commander Bill Spann. West Point did not respond to questions about its policies.
Phillips-Henry acknowledges that sexual assault is an under-reported crime. She says only ten to thirteen Air Force cadets come forward each year saying they are sexual-assault victims; that number includes cadets assaulted prior to enrolling, those assaulted by civilians, anonymous calls to the hotline, cadets in CASIE counseling and those pursuing an investigation. Since 1996, the academy has investigated twenty sexual-assault reports. The academy, which was established in 1957 and began admitting women nineteen years later, now enrolls 4,094 cadets, only 671 of whom are females.
In the past year, two cadets have been court-martialed for sexual assaults on civilians. DonCosta Seawell, a senior, pleaded guilty to one charge of forcible sodomy on a civilian and was sentenced to two years of confinement and total forfeiture of all pay and allowances. He was dismissed from the academy and is now serving an eighteen-month sentence in Miramar, a military correctional facility in San Diego. After pleading guilty to one count of obstruction of justice and one count of consensual sodomy on a minor, senior Robert Burdge was sentenced to two months of confinement and total forfeiture of all pay and allowances. He reportedly had sex with a thirteen-year-old girl during a summer sports camp at the academy in 2001. He was dismissed from the academy and has completed a two-month sentence in another correctional facility.
"I think we reflect society, and what happens in society is going to happen on any college campus. It does happen at a lower rate here," Phillips-Henry says. "The perception of a problem is going to vary from person to person. Understandably, cadets who have been through it clearly see it as a problem. And who wouldn't, having experienced something like that?"
The issue of sexual assault at the academy, says superintendent Lieutenant General John Dallager, has "my personal attention and my personal involvement." Even one case of sexual assault, he adds, "is too many."
The Air Force is in Lisa Ballas's blood. She was born on an Air Force base in England in 1981 and grew up just outside Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Her father is Air Force Academy class of 1971, and both her uncle and grandfather had their wings. So her father, who retired from the service after a twenty-year career that included a Vietnam tour, was proud when his only daughter decided to continue the tradition.
"I came out to visit Colorado Springs as a sophomore in high school and fell in love with the Air Force Academy," says Lisa, now a 21-year-old senior. "I knew it was the best place to go to become an officer."
For her, the academy isn't about an all-expenses-paid education, a few years of service and then civilian life; it's her entree into a military career. She wants to become a fighter pilot, and to do that, she needs nine months of general flight training before choosing an aircraft -- probably the F-15E or F-16 -- and then a few more months of instruction on it. But first, she needs to get through the next semester. She can't wait for graduation in May. Can't wait to be done with the miserable period that started on that unlucky day in October.
After Adam helped Lisa clean the blood off the bathroom floor, he found a place in the house for her to sleep that was "nowhere near Max." It was late, and no one was in any position to drive back to Colorado Springs. But the next morning, Adam saw Max try to hug Lisa. "He looked pretty hung over, and she didn't look happy to see him at all. He gave her a quick hug and said goodbye before he left. As he was putting his shoes on, I noticed a couple of spots of blood on his white socks, like he had stepped in the blood on the bathroom carpet."
After Max left, Lisa's friend Jennifer drove her back to Colorado Springs. As soon as she returned to the academy, Lisa found CASIE program manager Kristy Gorton and told her what had happened, and advocate Guzman took her to Memorial Hospital for an exam. In her report, the examining nurse noted several abrasions, contusions and tears both inside and outside Lisa's vagina. "She told me that this kind of trauma doesn't happen in consensual sex," Lisa remembers.
Two days later, Lisa had an initial meeting with the Office of Special Investigations, during which she requested that her friends not be disciplined for drinking that night, in accordance with academy policy. Two days after that, Lisa's request was granted, and she filed a formal report with the OSI. Investigators told her she could either wait for the secretary of the Air Force to approve a wiretap in order to get a taped confession from Max or forgo the tap and have the OSI begin its investigation immediately. Lisa chose the latter. "I knew Max had boxers and socks with my blood on them, and I wanted them to get those right away," she says.
(Lisa's friend Justin had confronted Max the morning after the party, but Max reportedly denied having had sex with Lisa; in the sworn statement he would later give to the OSI, Justin explained how he'd told Max that Lisa was a virgin and that blood had been found in the bathroom. "I then told him he should look at his stomach and boxers to see if there was blood there to prove it to himself," Justin wrote. "He proceeded to lift up his shirt to see blood on his boxers.")
The next day, Max was informed of the allegation, and Lisa says cadets in his squadron told her that investigators had left his room with a brown paper bag. "I assume it had his boxers and socks in it, but I never heard anything more about it," she says. In fact, she didn't hear anything more until early 2002, when the academy's legal department informed her that the investigation had ended.
"I was really hoping it would go to a court martial. To me, there was no other route," she says. "I thought I had a pretty good case. All my friends who were at the party gave statements to the OSI."
Before the academy could proceed with a court martial, however, Lieutenant General Dallager had to decide whether to convene an Article 32, essentially a hybrid of a civilian grand jury and a preliminary hearing. In these inquiries, the Air Force prosecutes the accused rapist, making the victim -- who is a prosecution witness rather than a principal party -- more of a bystander to the proceedings. Major Vladimir Shifrin, the academy's chief of military justice, says the prosecuting attorney represents the academy, not the victim. "The Air Force would be my client, and I would prosecute the case in the best interest of the government, not necessarily in the best interest of the victim, and that is something that is explained to the victims from the get-go," he says.
Additionally, while defendants, such as Max Rodriguez, are provided with Air Force attorneys, victims are not. They can obtain civilian counsel to help prepare for the Article 32, but the attorney cannot participate in the inquiry. However, the academy's victim/witness assistance procedures do set some policies for how the victim should be treated: "Prior to going forth with an investigation and trial, cadets should be informed about the nature of questions they will be asked for the purposes of data collection, examination and cross-examination."
But Lisa says that didn't happen in her March 7, 2002, hearing, which was open to the public. "They never brought me into the courtroom to say, 'This is where you're going to sit, here are the questions you'll be asked on cross-examination.' I was going into this totally blind, and they destroyed my credibility."
Although most of the witness statements made it sound as though Max was guilty, one was more ambiguous. Miguel Fernandez, who had driven Lisa to the party and bought alcohol for her, recalled speaking to Lisa the morning after the party. "She told me she was as much at fault as Max. She told me she didn't think they had sex. I brought up the issue of penetration and the definition of a sexual act. After that, she didn't respond. Lisa didn't actually say if there was penetration or not. Lisa said to me, 'I came here as a virgin, and I'm going to leave one, too.'"
While being questioned on the stand, Lisa couldn't remember every detail of that night, and Max's defense attorneys used that to their advantage. "This case should end right here," lead defense attorney Captain James Williams argued. "The details she remembers are selective. She doesn't remember anything that would reflect poorly on her."
Lisa later learned through her own research that people who have experienced a traumatic event often don't remember details until much later, and she wondered why the prosecuting attorneys hadn't brought in any experts to talk about post-traumatic stress. Although much ado was made of the many drinks she'd had at the party, the academy's own regulations for dealing with sexual-assault victims state that "consent is not given where there is force, threat of force, coercion, or when the person is alcohol-impaired, underage, or unconscious."
The fact that Lisa didn't fight back was also used against her by the defense attorneys. "They ripped me apart for not screaming or kicking or hitting Max. And they said that because I'm Catholic and was a virgin, I was having regrets about that night, and that that's why I made the accusation," Lisa says. "That doesn't make sense. If I wanted to protect myself, I wouldn't have gone public like this."
Lisa's name didn't appear in news reports about the hearing, but she was nevertheless hurt by the coverage. The Gazette, in particular, she says, made her sound like a drunken floozy. The lead of one article in the Colorado Springs paper started out this way: "She was drunk, thought he was cute and followed him into a darkened bathroom, where they stripped, kissed and fondled."
With her image tarnished in both the hearing and the press, Lisa began to wonder whether the outcome would be favorable. Max was present for the daylong hearing but didn't testify. And the prosecutors didn't call all of the witnesses who supported Lisa's story, nor did they enter the rape kit into evidence.
"The Article 32 hearing is not a trial, so the prosecution, a lot of times, will not bring all the evidence forward, and there are various reasons for that, some of it tactical, having to do with trial," Major Shifrin explains. "You might not want to have all the evidence there for the defense to pick apart."
The same goes for witnesses, he adds. "If the same information can come from one witness, then the prosecution will sometimes make the decision not to bring the other witnesses forward to avoid giving the defense a preview of what the trial is going to be all about."
About a week after the hearing, Lisa's nagging doubts were proven right: The investigating officer recommended against a court martial. Lisa wanted to know the officer's reasons and filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all documents pertaining to her hearing, but the officer's comments were redacted from the file. "Once all the evidence was reviewed by the Article 32 investigating officer, it was the opinion of that officer that the government would not be able to prove the case at trial," Major Shifrin explains, adding that Lisa was denied the officer's comments because "the opinions of the investigating officer are protected by several privileges, including an attorney-client privilege and an investigative privilege under the Freedom of Information Act."
Lisa decided to talk to the commandant of cadets, Brigadier General Silvanus "Taco" Gilbert, because it was up to him to decide whether to hold a court martial. Gilbert agreed to meet with Lisa but wouldn't allow her CASIE advocate to attend; however, Michael Freimann, an attorney representing the academy, was present. "I told him that I wanted the cadet wing to know that this type of behavior is wrong and for the Air Force to say it's wrong. They say they have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and assault, and this was their chance to prove it," Lisa says. "He looked at me and said, 'I want the cadet wing to know that your behavior that night was wrong and won't be tolerated.'
"He said he has two daughters and three sisters, and that they would never behave like that. I kept saying that it wasn't my fault, and he said that any other guy would have done the same thing! He said, 'If I had my way, you'd be marching tours right next to Cadet Rodriguez.' I was so flabbergasted that my commanding officer would say those things to a victim," Lisa continues. "The attorney was sitting there the entire time and didn't say a word. The general also gave me an example. He said, 'Say I wanted to visit Israel tomorrow, and when I'm over there, I get shot. No one would say I deserve to be shot or that I wanted to be shot, but -- then he smacked his head -- what was I thinking?' I just sat there with my mouth open. I couldn't believe it. I kept looking at the attorney like, 'Help me out here.'"
Finally, she says, Gilbert told her she was accountable for her actions that night and "didn't have to go to that party, didn't have to drink that night, didn't have to play the card game and didn't have to follow him back into that bathroom. I said, 'You know what, Sir? He didn't have to rape me.'"
"What I said was that I have four sisters, three daughters and a wife and that I view sexual assault as if it happened to them," Brigadier General Gilbert responded in writing. "I take all reports seriously. I investigate every allegation and take action on every assault. That said, there was no justification for the alleged assault on her. However, she did engage in some very high-risk behavior that night. Again, the behavior in no way justifies what happened to her, but when you put yourself in situations with increased risk, you have to take increased precautions to mitigate those risks.
"For example, 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," Gilbert continued. "The behavior she engaged in is not the behavior we condone for our cadets or our officers in the Air Force. This standard isn't just for the Air Force Academy; it's an Air Force standard."
For the first time since the investigation began, Lisa broke down and cried. But her tears didn't sway Gilbert, who agreed with the investigating officer's recommendation and dropped the charges against Max.
With her case dismissed, Lisa felt her only hope for an appeal rested with the rape kit, so she asked the academy's legal department for it. "Legal said they didn't have it and to call OSI, so I called OSI, and they said Legal has it." Frustrated, Lisa filed a formal request for the evidence in May. She didn't receive a response for almost six months. In a letter dated November 1, 2002, the academy's Information Release Division explained, "Your FOIA request was received on 15 May 2002 but was misplaced and overlook [sic] until 30 October 2002 we do apologize for the delay in responding to you sooner. Unfortunately, we have researched our records and [the file] is not here, we have gone to the detachment and requested the complete investigative file." (Major Shifrin says he doesn't know what happened to her rape kit but that in general, that kind of evidence is not releasable under the Freedom of Information Act.)
Just because the case didn't go to a court martial doesn't mean the academy forgot about Max, however. They decided to hold an administrative hearing, in which the prosecution has to show only a preponderance of the evidence rather than the court-martial standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Shifrin can't comment on Max's case or divulge when his hearing will take place, other than to say he's not currently at the academy. An administrative action can result in a cadet being discharged under honorable, general or other than honorable conditions; only a court martial can end in a dishonorable discharge. (Max did not respond to interview requests from Westword).
Despite what she's been through, Lisa remains dedicated to the Air Force. "I'm not trying to take down the academy," she says. "I just want to fix a problem."
To be part of the solution, Lisa started volunteering with the CASIE program and plans to receive training this summer with the El Paso County Sheriff's Department to become a victim's advocate. She even applied to be the program manager of CASIE next year. Her plan was to return to the academy next fall as a lieutenant and run the program for a year, delaying her flight training.
But a couple of weeks after she was offered the job, Major Phillips-Henry asked if she intended to join a class-action suit rumored to be starting against the academy. The major advised her that she'd have to choose between her new job and filing suit. Lisa assured Phillips-Henry that her loyalty lay with the Air Force.
The academy, it seemed, was getting nervous. There were other young women who had recently reported being raped, and some of them were talking about suing.
Ever since she was a little girl, Jessica Brakey looked to the United States Air Force Academy to provide the stability she never had growing up. Jessica was born in Denver in 1980, the daughter of an African-American father and a Caucasian mother, who separated when she was a year old.
Jessica led a nomadic lifestyle growing up; she bounced around the Denver metro area, going from one family member's house to another. Amid the instability of her childhood and adolescence, Jessica sought solace in school, throwing herself into honors classes and extracurricular activities, including a part-time job for Congressman Dan Schaefer. Driving her hard work was the hope of one day becoming a cadet.
Jessica knew she wanted to go to the Air Force Academy after a fifth-grade field trip to Colorado Springs. "I idolized the Air Force," says Jessica, who was attracted to the discipline of military life and the idea of serving her country. After graduating from Englewood High, Jessica attended ten months of Air Force Academy prep school and then enrolled in the academy.
For the first year, the academy lived up to Jessica's expectations. But things started to change just before her sophomore year, when she went to a required field training at Jack's Valley. For three weeks every summer, approximately 200 cadets go to the base's outdoor training facility to learn what it's like to live in tents and subsist on dry food. The exercise is led by upperclassmen, and in August 2000, one of the cadets in charge was "Kevin," who hung around Jessica a lot -- perhaps, she says, because he is also biracial, and "there aren't many of us at the academy."
"Every few days, he was hitting on me. He kept asking me to see a movie with him," Jessica says. "Women get hit on a lot at the academy, and we learn to take it."
But Kevin wouldn't back down. On the last night of the exercise, Jessica awoke at midnight to find him standing over her cot. The other girls in her tent were sleeping, and Kevin bent down and whispered that he needed to talk to her about something important.
In the moonlight, he led Jessica half a mile up a road to some mess tents. They sat down at a picnic table, and he started asking her questions, such as where she grew up. "I was wondering where this was going," she recalls. He moved closer and started touching her, she says, then pinned her down on the picnic table and raped her. "I just froze. It was like watching myself in a movie. I always thought I was the type of person that if something like this happened, the guy would leave with at least two teeth missing," Jessica says.
Instead, he walked her back to her tent. "It was like I was in a daze," she says. "I can't recall anything he said. I just wanted to crawl back in my cot and pretend it didn't happen."
When she woke up the next day, she had a splitting headache and didn't want to be left alone. As she and her tent mates were packing up, Kevin approached her and said something like, "Hey sweet thing," to which she "flipped out." Jessica says that another cadet noticed her reaction. "I'm a dark girl, and I must have turned green."
As soon as Jessica got back to her dorm, she took a shower. "I stayed in there a long time, like I couldn't get clean. And there went all my evidence, right down the drain."
Later that day, Kevin stopped by her room and again asked her to go to a movie with him. "I said, 'Do you realize what happened?'" Jessica recalls. "He even reached over and tried to kiss me, like we were dating. I smacked him with a ruler I had on my desk. I wanted to puke after he left."
Jessica tried to forget what had happened and move on. She didn't report the crime, didn't want to think about it at all. And she did what she could to avoid Kevin, including dropping out of the gospel choir they participated in. For a while, she did a pretty good job of convincing herself that everything was okay. But the mind sends out warning signs when there's trouble. Jessica started having nightmares, couldn't concentrate in class and even started running red lights. "I felt like I was spinning my wheels. I'd zone out in the middle of a test. My grades went down, and I had to go on academic probation. So I called my old counselor at the prep school and asked for help. He asked me if I'd been sexually assaulted." But she declined to confide in him or anyone else.
Her counselor figured Jessica had an anxiety disorder and helped her develop a "get-well plan" that included a change in diet and study habits. Her grades improved, and she started playing softball and doing aikido. But she was still irritable and difficult to get along with, and her friends were beginning to get annoyed.
On her birthday last February, her boyfriend, who was also a cadet at the academy, came to her room and accused her of giving him herpes. A shouting match ensued. "The whole hallway heard me," Jessica says. She told her boyfriend she'd been faithful and then broke down about the rape.
After the big fight, Jessica's roommate told her commanding officer that Jessica needed help; her behavior had been erratic, she had reportedly threatened to harm her roommates on several occasions, and she had even threatened to hit her boyfriend with a baseball bat. Jessica guesses that her friend also told her superior about the rape accusation. Without her knowledge, she says, Jessica's commanders started documenting her behavior and collecting statements from other girls in her squadron, as well as from a faculty member who had accused her of being disruptive. When she returned from spring break in April, Jessica was told to report to her group's commanding officer, who informed her that she was under a mental-health investigation and needed to see a psychologist.
Major Shifrin can't comment on the specifics of Jessica's case, but he explains that "generally -- not just at the academy, but Air Force-wide -- commanders are allowed to investigate actions of their subordinates."
Air Force psychologist Brian DeSantis met with Jessica four times, in an effort, he explained in an April 25, 2001, memo, to answer the following questions: "(1) Does C2C Brakey have a condition that could result to her being a threat to herself or others and (2) Does C2C Brakey have a psychological condition that could prevent her from being commissioned?" In his diagnostic report, DeSantis noted that Jessica "reports 'sexual rape' by male cadet, however refuses to discuss or report incident." DeSantis concluded that Brakey had a personality disorder with histrionic and narcissistic traits and recommended that she not be commissioned by the Air Force.
Jessica decided to get a second opinion from Paul Isenstadt, a licensed clinical social worker in Colorado Springs. During two May interviews with her, Isenstadt noted that Jessica "was clearly oriented in all spheres and evidenced no sign of a thought disorder. Her memory, both recent and remote, appeared intact. Overall affect appeared appropriate. There was noted to be some intensity in mood and some pattern of excitability which might be consistent with histrionic traits which were identified by Dr. DeSantis.
"However, her style is to throw herself into activities and receive her validation through education, sports and relationships. This has always been her way of compensating for some of the severe rejection and abuse she experienced as a child," Isenstadt continued. "Although it is noted that this may be patterned behavior and considered by some to evidence what is referred to as a personality disorder, it does not appear to this evaluator that it should preclude her from her ability to achieve in the Air Force Academy academic environment." Isenstadt also recommended that she receive counseling.
Later that month, the academy's three-member medical review board met to discuss Jessica's case. In their report, the officers acknowledged DeSantis's diagnosis and added that Jessica "has demonstrated a pervasive pattern of very inappropriate and serious behaviors, exhibited in multiple settings, toward multiple individuals, and which deviate markedly from the behavior expected of a military officer. This is not something that would improve from further observation, or from a squadron change. The Board recommends disenrollment."
Jessica didn't help her situation any by getting into another fight with new boyfriend Allen Mirkadyrov, whom she'd begun dating in April. In late May, she went to Allen's dorm room, where they got into an argument over Allen's friendship with her ex-boyfriend. The argument turned physical and was so loud that some of Allen's squadron mates called police. Allen initially accused Jessica of hitting him, throwing things at him and threatening to kill him, and Jessica was arrested on assault and domestic-violence charges. She received a letter of reprimand on June 26 in which she was ordered not to have any further contact with Allen and to receive immediate counseling. In August, she received another letter from Brigadier General Taco Gilbert stating that he was beginning discharge procedures and that she had a right to first present her case to a hearing officer, which Jessica chose to do.
Shortly after the 2002 school year began, Jessica started attending a sexual-assault support group on base; she says CASIE program manager Gorton persuaded her to report her allegation for record-keeping purposes. And so on August 21 -- two years after the rape and three months after her alleged attacker graduated from the academy -- she filed a report. (Because he was never charged with anything and no public proceedings were held in the case, Kevin's name was changed to protect his identity.)
Before her hearing, Jessica started collecting numerous letters of recommendation from professors, friends and former employers. Andree Krause, district director for former congressman Dan Schaefer, wrote that "Jessica was one of our finer student staff members, which is evidenced by the fact that she was brought back to work with us several times. This would not have happened if any member of our staff found her to be difficult to work with in any way. Her work, which dealt heavily with our constituents, was exemplary. I certainly commend her most highly to you and ask that she not be removed from the academy."
Lieutenant Colonel Richard Lemp, who taught a fine-arts course that Jessica took, noted that her "conduct has been exemplary and she has attended to all duties conscientiously. In spite of the stress that she has experienced because of the possibility of disenrollment, she has nonetheless studied well, and her last graded review was a clear improvement over the first one in the course."
And George Pregel, the counseling director at the Air Force Academy Prep School who had helped Jessica when her grades started to suffer, suggested that her behavior might have had something to do with being sexually assaulted. "All one has to do is read our sponsored literature at the hospital, library, Social Actions, etc.," he wrote to the academy. "This literature tells us what to expect from people with her background and how we can help keep them in the Air Force."
On September 9, Jessica finally had a chance to state her own case for retention. Allen was the first to testify, and he admitted that he was as much to blame for the fight as she was. According to a transcript of the hearing, Allen told the officer, "We were both in it, Sir. Physical contact was there. I won't deny we were both involved in it."
Hearing officer: Did you push her?
Allen: I may have pushed her later.
Hearing officer: Did she push you?
Allen: Probably. It happened pretty fast. I don't really remember a lot of the detail, but we were both in physical contact. Like I said earlier, I wouldn't characterize it as anything unusual. People have that kind of stuff all the time. I've seen it here at the academy.
A few minutes later, the officer asked Allen if Jessica had threatened him.
Allen: I don't think she threatened me. We were just in an argument.... It was a very intense kind of argument. It wouldn't have happened in such a manner except for us being in love so much. I guess you could call it a lovers' fight kind of thing. It's happened before. I've seen it. It has happened to some of my friends. I wouldn't call it threatening.
Hearing officer: I'm at a loss. I have the statement you made to the police in May, and I'm listening to what you have said to me today. I don't want to say they sound different, but...
Allen: When I wrote that, I really didn't have to. When I got to the station, they told me that if I wanted this to go away faster, I should write a report. They advised me to.
Later, the hearing officer said, "One of the other reasons the superintendent is giving Cadet Brakey notice of possible disenrollment is because she said, according to the allegations, 'I want to fucking kill you right now.' It comes right out of the police report. Do you remember her saying that?"
Allen: Yes, I do.
Hearing officer: Do you remember what it was in response to?
Allen: No, Sir. It was just an argument at first. We were both saying words to each other. It was a heated argument. She just said it in the heat of the argument. I just remember that statement. That's why I filed the report.
Hearing officer: Did you feel threatened at that point? Did you believe she meant that?
Allen: Did I feel threatened? No. I didn't think she was really going to kill me. It wasn't like that at all. People say stuff like that all the time.
The hearing officer concluded that although Jessica had unlawfully struck Allen and acted disorderly, some of her strikes were delivered in self-defense; he also decided that Jessica's statement "I want to fucking kill you right now" did not amount to a threat. Three days after the hearing, Jessica sent her commander a letter requesting permission to attend counseling off base with the backing of academy defense attorney Captain James Williams -- the attorney who represented Max Rodriguez in Lisa Ballas's case.
In a letter to the academy, Williams argued that what happened with Allen did not warrant disenrollment. He also said Jessica's situation was complicated by her rape allegation. "It is unclear at this time what, if any, impact this assault has had and will have on her. It is possible that this incident could have been a cause of C1C Brakey's actions which led to both the [mental-health evaluation] and the [hearing officer] case," Williams wrote. "Because of this, if you determine that C1C Brakey should not be permitted to graduate, then she asks that you grant her a medical turnback so she can have an opportunity to explore these issues with her therapist."
But on October 31, Lieutenant General Dallager, citing the fight with Allen and the Air Force psychologist's diagnosis, recommended to the secretary of the Air Force that Jessica be given an honorable discharge. She was placed on immediate leave. Major Shifrin can't comment on whether Allen was ever disciplined for his role in the fight but confirmed that he is still enrolled at the academy. Jessica believes she'd still be there had she never mentioned the rape. Her removal, she says, is "damage control. They don't want the way they're treating women down there to get out. It's a good old boys' network, and if you're a woman and you get assaulted and you report it, you can kiss your career goodbye."
Dorothy Mackey, a former senior Air Force captain and commander who founded a nonprofit called Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel, agrees. In 1995, Mackey sued two senior officers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where she was stationed, for sexual harassment. The United States Court of Appeals for the Southern District of Ohio, where she filed her lawsuit, ruled that she couldn't sue the two men individually, because they "were acting within the scope of their employment when they allegedly harassed" her. The court determined that she'd have to substitute the United States government as the defendant. But a precedent-setting 1950 United States Supreme Court decision on three cases of soldiers being killed or injured while on active duty established the Feres Doctrine, which 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."
Mackey's case was over, but her resolve to help others was just beginning. Since she started STAMP in 1997, she's gotten 3,800 calls from officers and civilians claiming to have been abused, harassed or discriminated against by military personnel. Mackey has since become a well-known speaker who travels the world talking about violence in the military; she recently addressed The Hague and the International Conference of Psychiatrists.
When she hears from men and women who have been sexually assaulted, she explains the different cycles of trauma and refers them to counselors or attorneys. But she tells them not to expect much help from the military, no matter which branch it is. "After my experience, I can honestly tell you that the military doesn't want to investigate these cases," says Mackey, who also claims she was raped three times during her Air Force career, twice by military doctors and once by a senior officer; she says she repressed the memory of the rapes until years later.
Mackey, who followed some of the high-profile assault cases at the Air Force Academy a decade ago, says assault victims in military schools are treated no differently than victims who are in the service. And psychological evaluations, she explains, are a common way for the military to discredit victims. "It's the whole nuts or sluts thing," she says. "You're either a slut or you're crazy. When you're traumatized, you don't remember all the details at first, and they use that to discount victims' claims. They do nothing to nurture or help the victim. Sure, there are individuals who try to help, but the majority of people in the system are there to shut you down."
Major Shifrin says that's simply untrue. "Every cadet has to be medically qualified to be commissioned and to serve in the Air Force after graduation here, and that's both physical health and mental health," he says. "Cadets are evaluated all the time medically."
Former cadet Amy Watroba was found to be mentally unfit after claiming she'd been sexually harassed. In a 1996 lawsuit she brought against the Air Force Academy, she alleged that some of the men in her squadron talked frequently about masturbation, made derogatory comments about women, tried to make her view pornography and ejaculated onto a football banner before an Academy-Army game. Watroba claimed that after she and her roommates reported the incidents, they were retaliated against by others in the squadron -- either ignored or taunted -- while their superiors looked on.
The formerly healthy cadet and good student started shaking, awakening from nightmares and having trouble concentrating on schoolwork. She was hospitalized twice for overdosing on pain medication and finally decided to leave the academy at the end of the 1994 semester. But first the academy ordered her to undergo a mental-health evaluation. The military psychologist who examined Watroba determined that she had "resolved adjustment disorder" and was unpredictable. The psychologist noted in his report that Watroba had a "counterproductive sense of inadequacy in a non-gender-equal environment." She received an involuntary medical discharge that prohibited her from ever serving in the military again. Because of the Feres Doctrine, her case was dismissed in 1999.
Jessica Brakey says she knows of fifteen other cadets who have been sexually assaulted in the past two years and that most of them never reported it. "The number-one reason cadets don't report is because they're in denial. No one wants to admit they were raped." Jessica also says cadets fear that no one will believe a fellow cadet assaulted them because of the misconception that a rape claim is only legitimate if the attacker is a stranger who jumps out of the bushes.
"And number two, cadets fear retribution," Jessica continues. "No one wants to make waves; it's not worth losing your education over."
Another cadet who reported being raped left the academy around the same time as Jessica. Citing school policy, freshman Justine Parks asked not to be punished for drinking and for violating other rules the night she was assaulted in an upperclassman's dorm room. But she received heavy sanctions nonetheless.
That angered her CASIE representative so much that he quit the program. The cadet, who had initially encouraged her to report the crime, stated in his November 19, 2002, resignation letter, "This was a grave mistake on my part. I should never have trusted the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, who repeatedly assured us that they would make every effort to maintain a victim's dignity. I should never have trusted the command representatives who repeatedly assured us that the program, and more importantly, the victim, would get the support needed in a time like this. In trusting them, I became part of the problem.
"It is my firm belief that the victim would be better off (both professionally and emotionally) today if she had never come forward. I cannot volunteer to support a policy of punishing victims for coming forward," he continued. "I worry what this institution, and in fact the military, is coming to when the victim of a crime must fear coming forward for fear of reprisal or criminal prosecution. In this case, the victim received seven Class D hits related to the incident. Regardless of the need to keep 'good order and discipline' or the desire to hold individuals responsible for their actions in this training environment, I cannot accept the fact that I played a role in that."
Major Shifrin, who can't comment on Parks's case, says the investigation could be completed in the next month or two.
In early December, Jessica went to live with her aunt and uncle in Kansas. She wanted to get as far away from the academy as she could. But no amount of miles could distance her from the crash landing her military career just suffered. Two days before Christmas, Jessica was in such a deep depression that she checked herself into a hospital emergency room, where two doctors examined her and concluded that she's bipolar. "I was probably bipolar before the academy and just never knew it, but I think the things I went through there aggravated my condition," she says.
Major Shifrin says the investigation into Jessica's rape allegation is now closed; since it's part of the larger case involving her retention at the academy, however, he can't comment on the outcome. Jessica herself says she was never told what happened with her rape investigation, so all she can do now is wait for the secretary of the Air Force's decision.
As soon as she learned that she was being considered for disenrollment, Jessica turned to Senator Tom Tancredo, whose constituent advocate, Terry Van Keuren, obliged. "Whenever any constituent comes to us for any matter, we try to help them," Van Keuren explains.
His assistance came in the form of a November 1 letter to the secretary of the Air Force requesting that Jessica get a fair shake. "All we're trying to do is make sure she can continue her course of studies. Whether she's commissioned or not is something else," Van Keuren says. "And if she's dismissed, we want to make sure the government doesn't try to get her to pay them back."
In addition, Jessica is contemplating filing a class-action suit against the academy but doesn't know if enough cadets will join her. And although she's thinking of enrolling in a private military academy next year, she's not sure whether she'll ever wear a uniform again. "Do I even want to be in the military anymore?" Jessica asks herself. "I don't know."
Lisa Ballas went home for Christmas break feeling hopeful that she could make a difference for sexual-assault victims at the Air Force Academy. She was looking forward to returning for one more semester and then coming back next fall to manage the CASIE program.
But a few days after returning to Michigan, she got a call from a colonel informing her that she wouldn't be heading the CASIE program after all. The colonel, she says, did not offer her a reason. And the week she returned to school, she received an e-mail message informing her that she could no longer even serve as a CASIE volunteer.
Major Phillips-Henry explains that the possibility of Lisa being party to a lawsuit was reason enough not to offer her the job; had Lisa been heading the program -- or even involved as a volunteer -- she would have had access to confidential information about sexual-assault victims. And that, Phillips-Henry says, would have posed a conflict of interest.
Now Lisa feels hurt and betrayed. Her only comfort is knowing she's not alone. Ever since her case went to hearing and she started volunteering with CASIE, she's met other young women who have been assaulted. "A lot of girls have left the academy and are coming to me with similar situations," she says. As for cadets who are still there, "lots of them have told me they won't even report what happened to them because of the treatment I've gotten."
Lieutenant General Dallager is now trying to change that. Over the past two weeks, he has been seeking feedback from cadets about the issue of sexual assault on campus. He started by sending out a survey to all cadets regarding the climate of sexual harassment and assault on base, the programs for cadets who have been victimized, and their confidence and trust in the academy's leaders. An overwhelming number of cadets -- about 70 percent -- responded.
"By and large, there's pretty good confidence in the CASIE system," he says, adding, "To be quite frank, we can probably make the program even stronger."
Dallager would not go into much detail about what the cadets said in the survey or how the academy can improve its programs, because he wants to discuss the findings with cadets first. The superintendent also met last week with victims and with small groups of cadets in each class to gauge their opinions on sexual assault.
"What we're working on very diligently here is to expand the dialogue," Dallager says. "It's a subject that, to be quite frank, most folks are not real comfortable with and prefer not to talk a whole lot about, but we're talking about it, and out of those discussions with cadets [and officers], we intend to do something that improves the education process, the climate here, as well as some of the activities we do here," he says. "This is not about putting our heads in the sand; this is not about wishing it will go away.... We do have, unfortunately, sexual assaults here, and so it's got my personal attention, and I hope it has theirs, and then we're going to work on it together."
Lisa hopes so, too. "I want to see more people report, and that can only happen if you create trust in the system. I want to see victims who have depression or post-traumatic stress as a result of a sexual assault get help, because right now, depression and PTS get you kicked out of the academy," she says, adding that she doesn't think victims who have been raped while intoxicated should be punished, either.
"And I'm willing to risk ruining my career over this, even though I don't think I should have to."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Karla Ceballos Accused of Letting Her Baby Drown While She Cleaned Kitchen
Fri., Sep. 4, 7:00pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:00am
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:30pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 7:30pm
- Ten Often Critical "You Know You're From Denver When" Reader Punchlines
- Photos: The Ten Most Stolen Cars in Colorado