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The Colorado Air National Guard went to war against North Korea early on the morning of April 9. The hostilities came almost without warning and then quickly intensified; within hours of reporting for duty at Aurora's Buckley Field, Guard members were diving for cover and donning gas masks to protect themselves from an approaching cloud of airborne chemicals.

The second day of the mock war was canceled due to snow. But make no mistake about it: The Yanks won. "We always win," Captain Alison Ruttenberg says with a laugh.

But the Guard's other war, a legal battle in which the contestants are lobbing subpoenas instead of grenades, is very real. Last fall Ruttenberg and six fellow Guard members filed suit against the Colorado Air National Guard, the Guard's national administrative arm in Washington, D.C., Governor Roy Romer, the Department of the Air Force, Major General John France (who heads Colorado's Army and Air Guard units) and a blinding array of Colorado Air Guard brass.

The 111-page complaint accused Guard members from the top on down of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and myriad forms of fraud and waste. Buckley's 200th Airlift Squadron--which helps train Air Force Academy cadets in navigation and shuttles military personnel around the globe like a private airline--is singled out as the source of much of the trouble.

The suit, whose claims of lurid sexual hijinks and alleged coverups threaten to make it a miniature version of the Navy's Tailhook scandal, could even become a campaign issue in the gubernatorial election this fall. A source within the Republican Party says GOP spin doctors may attempt to take advantage of the fact that General France, whose $100,000 salary makes him the governor's highest-paid cabinet member, is under fire. The legal action also comes against a nationwide backdrop of similar accusations against National Guard outfits and other military units.

Nationally, the Tailhook debacle and other incidents prompted former Secretary of State Les Aspin to create an advisory board to assess how the Department of Defense conducts internal probes. That board may not be enough for U.S. Representative Pat Schroeder, a Denver Democrat, who, though she says she does not have enough information to comment specifically on the local lawsuit, says it is imperative that the military as a whole retool the process by which it investigates itself.

"We've done this before," Schroeder, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, says of the advisory board. "The investigations are frustrating in that we've been spending all this money for so long, and we get so little for it. I think the investigations have to be totally outside the system, much like the way the Government Accounting Office works. It has to be outside the command, because [investigators] see themselves as part of the team, and they believe they have to defend the team from anyone on the outside who's making charges. They're like junkyard dogs."

Meanwhile, many members of the once tight-knit 200th are now refusing to fly with each other or talk to each other. Whoever prevails in court, the skies over Buckley are likely to remain decidedly unfriendly for some time to come.

The 35-year-old Ruttenberg, an attorney formerly employed by the Holland & Hart law firm in Denver, is the suit's lead plaintiff. She became involved in the legal wrangle, she says, when disaffected guardsmen began approaching her through her part-time job as a staff attorney for three of the Colorado Air Guard's units. She became personally involved, she says, when Guard commanders retaliated against her for offering legal assistance to the guardsmen.

Joining Ruttenberg in the suit are: Jesus Quinonez, a Northwest Airlines pilot and captain in the Guard; former Guard pilot Captain Thomas Updyke; Master Sergeant Phil Pohanic, who served as a flight engineer until his firing last year; former flight attendant and Master Sergeant Kenneth Schaiterer; and former Technical Sergeant Terri Bruch, who also served as a flight attendant. Former 200th flight attendant and Master Sergeant Dorothy Haluska dropped out as a plaintiff late last month, after accepting an early retirement.

In their formal complaint, and in interviews, the plaintiffs paint a picture of the 200th as a military playground where passenger planes were used as globe-hopping "party barges," and upper-echelon officers quaffed beer and dined on steak at taxpayer expense.

The complaint alleges that the 200th's two passenger planes, which Phil Pohanic claims cost $3,000 per hour to operate, have been used to take officers, family members and handpicked crews on junkets to the Cayman Islands, Rio de Janeiro, Walt Disney World and the World's Fair in Vancouver, Canada. Crews are accused of staying in costly hotels when free military lodging was readily available. The plaintiffs have filed several Freedom of Information requests to the Air Force in the past two years in an attempt to get flight logs or other records that would document the trips, but the military has declined to respond. The Colorado Guard also declined Westword's request for those records.

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Karen Bowers