The Wilding Blue Yonder

Like its commander in chief, the Air Force Academy has weathered some rough times lately.

Last Thursday it hosted the world premiere of Jewel of the Rockies: The U.S. Air Force Academy's First 50 Years, a Rocky Mountain PBS film that airs at 9 p.m. September 19. Producer Trux Simmons, who worked on the documentary off and on for more than two years, could hardly cover the academy's entire history in 56 minutes (and 40 seconds), just the "highlights and the lowlights, and not dwell on any of them," he explains. He worked closely with the academy to find archival footage and to get interviews with officials and cadets (all pre-vetted). "I was surprised at how open they were to us, having been beaten up so badly by the media over the past few years," he admits.

Simmons was at the premiere, as were some of the academy's early graduates and the entire class of 2009, which was required to attend. They poured into Arnold Hall carrying books, lacrosse sticks, hats, filling the auditorium with squared-off shoulders, clean necks, clear minds.

They were greeted by Johnny Whitaker, class of '73 and the academy's communications director. "We've come a long way," he said, referring to touchy periods at the academy regarding race, the admission of women, the recent sex-assault scandal. And then he cued up the film, which started back before the beginning, when pilots first suggested such a military school after the Big One, a request echoed by pilots after WWII, when the cause was taken up in earnest. Colorado competed against 45 other states to get the Air Force Academy (but then, Denver fought to get the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, and Colorado Springs has gone on to use recruiting religious-right organizations as a major economic-development plan). It finally wrested the prize from Illinois and Wisconsin after Charles Lindbergh flew over the 19,000-acre site just north of the city and pronounced it ideal.

After the announcement was made on April 1, 1954, Chicago architect Walter Netsch began working on his design. While ground was broken in Colorado Springs, in July 1955 the first academy class moved onto Lowry Air Force Base -- and into the same barracks that now house Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Walter Cronkite was on hand to report the news.

Two years later, the cadets took possession of their new home, a streamlined design for the future, full of square corners because "your cadets turn at a right angle," Netsch explained. Cecil B. DeMille, a flier himself, designed their uniforms. A 1962 open house attracted so many people that traffic was backed up for 45 miles -- but the academy would soon be in worse jams. A mid-'60s cheating scandal (a cadet's flubbed recitation of the honor code, "We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate anyone among us who does," during the documentary elicited howls from the audience) resulted in the dismissal of 46 cadets, including Jody Powell, who later became spokesman for President Jimmy Carter. Protesters came on site to demonstrate against the Vietnam War, a time so contentious that 46 percent of the class of '75 wound up leaving the academy.

And then the women came.

Jessica Brakey had always wanted to attend the Air Force Academy and was accepted in 1999, more than two decades after women were first admitted. She'd make a hell of a warrior -- but for the past three years, ever since the academy recommended that she be discharged, she's been fighting not for her country, but for her life.

In August 2000, Jessica says, at the start of her sophomore year, she was raped by an older cadet who was supervising field training. Two years passed before she complained to authorities, and when she did, they punished the victim. And she wasn't the only one who'd suffered, Brakey wrote in a heart-wrenching e-mail that she sent to the media, including Westword, in fall 2002. The result was "The War Within," an award-winning series that ultimately led to a half-dozen federal investigations, a wholesale change in command at the academy and more than a hundred women coming forward with their own allegations of sexual assault. And it all started with Brakey, whose photo appeared on the cover of the January 30, 2003, issue.

That cover appears in Jewel of the Rockies, illustrating a brief section that details a difficult time at the academy that cost both the superintendent and the commander of cadets their posts and resulted in the removal of the famous "Bring Me Men" sign that had graced the entrance to the cadets' area. In its place is a new slogan: "Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence in All We Do."

Colonel Debra Gray, a member of the first coed class of '80, was brought back to be the vice commandant of cadets. She plays a major role in the documentary, explaining that new systems have been introduced for allegations of sexual assault. Among other things, cadets can tell their stories with a guarantee of confidentiality.

Outside of the academy, though, old systems remain in place. Lieutenant Joseph Harding, the man whom Brakey accused of rape, is scheduled to go on trial next month in Texas on allegations of sexual assault -- but not in connection with her case. Brakey's complaint was removed from the Air Force court-martial proceedings because Jennifer Bier, the Colorado Springs therapist who'd counseled her, refused to hand over her therapy records -- which, under Colorado law, would be considered strictly confidential. But the rules are different in military court. And while Brakey herself was eager to testify, a judge ruled that her portion of the case could not go forward without those records.

And then prosecutors missed the appeal deadline by a few days.

"We can't even file a brief unless they reinstate the appeal," says Wendy Murphy, lawyer for both Brakey and Bier. "I'll be amazed if the case goes forward. Jessica is devastated. She wanted to have her day in court. She wanted to look at him, point the finger. She wanted him to be held accountable.

"This was the Air Force's only way to prevent the truth from coming out, to dump the case," she concludes.

Although Brakey's case has stalled, there's still a contempt-of-court warrant out for Bier -- as well as subpoenas outstanding for numerous media outlets, including Westword. "What is the point?" she wonders. "Why haven't they done something about this? If they want clarification of the law, they need to send it to the higher court."

Bier isn't content with leaving future sex-assault cases in Colorado Springs -- on or off academy grounds -- to the military justice system. She recently met with John Newsome, the El Paso County district attorney, to discuss how rape allegations at the academy should be handled in the future. "We are in the process of researching the issue and exploring various options," says Diana May, chief deputy district attorney.

"I asked him to look at the degree to which the Air Force Academy's prosecution of sex-assault cases was successful or not," Bier elaborates. "I'm hoping our district attorney's office and the academy can work out a memorandum of understanding on cases in El Paso County, but that doesn't do anything for the military at large."

Meanwhile, back in this particular slice of the military, Jewel of the Rockies was wrapping up.

"A few people kind of went astray," one cadet said.

"Scandals happen everywhere," said another.

The film finishes with a flourish in July 2004, with a new slogan, new leaders, a new class and a new honor: That April, the Air Force Academy had been named a national historic landmark.

History was made here, all right.


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