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Lieutenant General John Rosa stood before a group of reporters last week and announced that the Air Force Academy is waging war on sexual assault and harassment.

Like any military operation, this one requires a tactical approach and a thorough knowledge of the enemy. Armed with studies conducted by everyone from a congressionally chartered panel to the Defense Department Inspector General, it has become clear who -- or, in this case, what -- the enemy is at the Air Force Academy: a widely held belief that women shouldn't be there. In a survey conducted on August 27 and released to the public on September 29, 22 percent of male cadets said they don't believe women belong at the academy, and eighteen percent indicated that women are less effective leaders than men.

It's not surprising, then, that female cadets believe they have to be more masculine to fit in. Nearly half of all cadets surveyed -- 42 percent -- said that women, who have been training at the academy since 1976, can't be feminine and professional at the same time and that natural differences between the sexes make the complete acceptance of women in the institution impossible.

Changing those sentiments will be "part of our culture change," Rosa, the new superintendent, said at a press conference last week. That effort will include placing women in leadership positions. (Earlier this year, there were no female Air Officers Commanding in charge of the cadet squadrons; by next year, twelve of the 36 squadron AOCs will be women.)

Refusing to admit young men with negative attitudes toward women is another way to change the culture; Rosa said that potential cadets will be questioned about their beliefs before they are accepted. Revising and possibly even disbanding the entire fourth-class system, in which older cadets wield enormous power over younger ones, would also make the academy a more equitable place for all and a safer one for women, in particular. Brigadier General Johnny Weida, the new commandant of cadets, is looking at the United States Military Academy at West Point, which did away with its plebe system several years ago. In addition, academy officials will partner with Denver's Rape Assistance and Awareness Program in hopes of learning how to better handle sexual assaults; at present, one in six cadets say they don't even know how to report such crimes.

The academy-conducted survey also found that almost 60 percent of women say sexual harassment occurs in the cadet wing and that more than 25 percent of women won't report harassment or discrimination for fear of being ostracized ("The War Within," January 30). However, the majority of cadets expressed a high level of confidence in the new leaders' ability to prevent or stop unwanted sexual harassment. But Rosa conceded that this is no fait accompli. True results won't be known for years, he said, and in the meantime, officials will be looking not only at ways to improve the academy culture, but also at the culture of the prep school, where many cadets get their start.

Like the nation's war on terror, the academy's battle to stamp out sexual harassment and assault is likely to be enduring.

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon