In late December, a former cadet named Liz went to Senator Wayne Allard and told him she'd been raped and then ostracized for reporting it. Allard's office responded to her request for help by asking the Air Force Academy to look into the allegation.
"We'd just started getting into it when everything broke," explains Allard press secretary Dick Wadhams. The same day Westword's story appeared, Allard penned a letter to the Pentagon calling for an investigation into how the women's cases had been handled. Since then, more cadets have come forward with similar stories, bringing the total number who have contacted Allard to eighteen.
Thirteen days after Westword published its story, KMGH/Channel 7 followed with the first of a multi-part series featuring Liz, the young women in the Westword article and another female cadet who never reported her assault. Since then, the story has been reported by numerous media outlets, including The New York Times, Good Morning America, the Today Show and CNN. Also known to be preparing stories about the allegations are Newsweek, Time, People and 20/20.
Allard also expressed concern about comments in the Westword story made by Brigadier General Silvanus "Taco" Gilbert, the commandant of cadets. In a written reply to specific questions about Ballas, who was allegedly assaulted by a fellow cadet after drinking at a party, Gilbert noted that the young woman engaged 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."
Those comments both "surprised and concerned" Allard, because it seemed to him that Gilbert wasn't acknowledging the problem, Wadhams says.
Since then, Gilbert has adopted a different tone, and in more recent news reports, he has vowed to fully support victims. In a February 21 phone interview with Westword, Gilbert steered clear of commenting on his earlier statements and made only broad comments about sexual assault at the academy.
"My primary concern first, foremost and always is the safety and the security of our cadets," he says. "As I tried to allude to in the statements that I provided before, the cadets are not just a bunch of numbers, a collection of blue uniforms out there; they're my family. And it's hard to explain to someone that's never been in the military what being a commander is like. You don't view them as subordinates; they truly become members of your family, and every one of them is an important individual to me, and therefore the programs that we have here to support them are equally important to me. And first and foremost, I hope that our education programs can help to prevent any of our cadets from ever having to suffer the trauma of sexual assault or rape."
With regard to Gilbert's latest comments, Wadhams says Allard is "pleased to see that he's taking this more seriously." Previously, Allard, who's a member of both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the academy's board of visitors, had targeted the general in press reports. But he now believes it would be unfair to focus attention entirely on Gilbert, according to Wadhams. "He isn't solely responsible for this problem," he says, adding that the issue of retribution for reporting sexual assault is a systemic problem that can't be blamed on any one individual.
And it's one that won't disappear anytime soon. Last week, a five-member team of Air Force investigators arrived at the academy to look into how rape cases have been handled there. Three more USAF officials joined the group this week to set up a hotline for cadets and academy personnel. The telephone number, which is not being released publicly, is available to people on base who may have information or concerns about the academy's handling of sexual-assault reports. "We felt we needed to give people who felt they needed to speak with us the opportunity," explains spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dewey Ford.
The fact-finding team plans to leave the academy at the end of the week but has not yet determined how long the hotline will remain in place. Once Air Force officials return to Washington, a second Air Force team will review the findings and determine the next step.
Allard met with the secretary of the Air Force on February 25 to ask about the alleged victims' cases. "Senator Allard shares the concerns that we have here for the safety and welfare of our cadets, and that's our number-one priority here," Gilbert says. "As a senator, as a member of our board of visitors and as a fellow American, this is his Air Force Academy, and he's always been very involved with what we do here. His inputs across the variety of programs that we have here, from his position on the board of visitors, have always had great impact, and we have always appreciated the insights that he has given, the directions and suggestions that he's given to make our programs stronger -- and again, we share this mutual concern here, and we'll continue working together to make our program the best it can possibly be, because our cadets deserve nothing less."
Click here to read Gilbert's original, unedited responses.