It Won't Fly

Dear President Bush,

Your appearance at the Air Force Academy's Falcon Stadium on Wednesday will be an unexpected honor for the Class of 2004. You weren't scheduled to address this group of future servicemen and women; you were supposed to come for last year's graduation, but you canceled. And, really, who could blame you? There was no reason to ruin your high approval ratings by aligning yourself with a little domestic crisis like dozens of female cadets being raped at a military academy. You had much bigger issues to address, such as trying to find WMDs in Iraq.

This year is a much better time for a trip to the Rockies. Rape at the Air Force Academy is no longer in the national headlines every day, and four new top officers are firmly in place. Sweeping changes have been instituted, supposedly making the academy a kinder, gentler place. A place in which upperclassmen no longer wield enormous power over underclassmen. A place where cadets who have been raped can come forward without fear of being punished or pushed out -- even if there were assault-related indiscretions such as drinking or fraternization.

To celebrate this, on May 1 the academy held a public event marking the end of April's Sexual Assault Awareness month called "Moving Mountains to End Sexual Assault." Was the biblical reference in the title intentional? Either way, it's going to take faith much bigger than a mustard seed to move this mountain. Why? Because the more things change at the academy, the more they stay the same.

Since the new leaders took over in April 2003, there have been 26 reports of sexual assault at the academy. That's in addition to the 142 sexual-assault allegations that were made between January 1993, when the first rash of sexual assaults came to light, and January 2003. And since I exposed this story almost seventeen months ago, at least sixty women have sought the help of Senator Wayne Allard, the unlikely victims' advocate throughout this scandal. But so far, there has been little justice for the women who say they were blamed, punished or kicked out after reporting the crimes ("The War Within," January 30, 2003).

Remember Jessica Brakey, the whistle-blower in all of this? Well, Joseph Harding, the man she accused of raping her in August 2000, graduated from the academy in 2002 and is now a second lieutenant stationed at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi. Brakey, however, is currently receiving treatment for trauma at an out-of-state facility and is still in limbo over her status as a cadet after challenging her disenrollment. But justice may be forthcoming. Harding faces a hearing to determine whether he will stand trial on one count of rape, one count of indecent assault and two counts of willful dereliction of duty. If he does, he will have to face both Brakey and another cadet who has accused him of assaulting her in 1999. Brakey was unable to attend a hearing on the matter earlier this month, and the other woman has so far refused to face Harding in court. As a result, the hearing was postponed until both Brakey and the other woman are willing or able to testify.

This isn't the first time Harding has been involved in a high-profile case with a female cadet. When Andrea Prasse complained that cadet Matt Rabe had harassed her and then wrongly accused her of lying about how she'd completed a class assignment, Harding was the cadet human-resources officer in charge of investigating her harassment claim. After consulting with Harding and academy officials, Prasse's commanding officer, Major Russell Meyer, e-mailed her this response: "We all feel that both you and Matt need to go through sensitivity training with HR. Again, you can disagree with me here, but I have talked to Lt. Col. Marselle, Lt. Col. Harris, Msgt. Adcox, Maj. Bennett, Maj. Bode, Greg Steenberge, Joe Harding . . . not to mention Gen. Gilbert. We all pretty much see the same things happening here. You failed to set clear boundaries/guidance when Matt irritated you last semester and then put yourself back into a bad situation this semester by being in his group."

Sound familiar? If not, just cross the Potomac and pay a visit to Brigadier General Taco Gilbert, the commandant of cadets who was reassigned to the Pentagon in the wake of his own blame-the-victim comments. When cadet Lisa Ballas went to him in the spring of 2002 to see if the man she'd accused of raping her at an off-campus party several months before would face court-martial, Gilbert faulted her for placing herself in a risky situation. The general later recounted their conservation in an e-mail to Westword, in which he made this now-infamous comment: "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." The young woman's alleged attacker, Max Rodriguez, not only avoided trial, but has recently been informed that he will be commissioned to serve in the Air Force -- a huge blow to Ballas, who is also now an officer.

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FROM: Julie Jargon