Take These Wings

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Andrea returned home while Gilbert was deciding whether to disenroll her or to put her on probation. Then in July, the Prasses received a call from his office: Andrea had 48 hours to report back to the academy. Gilbert had decided on disenrollment. The Prasses immediately appealed that decision with then-superintendent Lieutenant General John Dallager (who has since been reassigned and demoted in the wake of the rape scandal).

While her appeal was under way, Andrea was ordered to remain on campus, where she shelved books in the library. The academy also moved her to Squadron 41, the disciplinary quarters, where she was placed in a room between a drug user and a male cadet who had been found guilty of downloading child porn. The real indignity, though, was having to wear shoulder boards indicating that she had no rank.

Academy officials refused to discuss Andrea's case with Carol, so she went to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which published an article about Andrea's situation on July 21. The academy let Andrea go home the next day. Since then, several other news organizations have picked up the story, including the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press and CBS Evening News.

In January 2003, the Prasses were contacted by a Colorado Springs Gazette reporter who'd been leaked the results of the inspector general's investigation, which had found that every claim they'd made about the mishandling of Andrea's case and Gilbert's role in it was unsubstantiated. "I was like, 'What?' Do they contact me? Do they contact my congressmen? No, they call this reporter," Carol says.

To get the report, Carol had to file a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act; she was told that it would be April before she'd receive it. Meanwhile, Carol's Wisconsin congressmen, who were aware of Andrea's case from the beginning, had been calling and writing to the Air Force secretary.

The Prasses finally heard from Dallager in February, when he called with an offer: Andrea could return to the academy and serve six months' probation under Gilbert's supervision -- as long as she admitted to lying about having drawn the engine liner. If she successfully completed the probation, she could receive her diploma. The Prasses rejected the offer. "I said I would never take probation for this," Andrea says. "At the end of it, I'd have to turn myself in for lying, because it would have been a lie to admit to something I didn't do."

April brought no IG report, but Dallager came back with three more offers: The Prasses could pay the government the $129,000 cost of Andrea's education; Andrea could do six months' probation; or she could be disenrolled, serve six months' enlisted time and then reapply to the academy. If the academy readmitted her, she could graduate, get her commission and go on to pilot school; if the academy denied her second application, she'd be honorably discharged, granted her degree and made to pay back five-sixths of $129,000. The Prasses rejected these offers, too.

At the end of May, as their appeal made its way to the secretary of the Air Force, the Prasses finally received the IG report, which cleared Gilbert of all wrongdoing. To Carol, it appeared as if only selective pieces of evidence were referenced to make Andrea look bad. The course syllabus, which explained that students could use any and all outside work for the project, wasn't even cited.

Gilbert had told the IG that Andrea's "attempt to deceive her classmates by lying, to perhaps get a little additional credit for work that she didn't do, did not bode well for someone we were going to turn loose on the Air Force in eight days."

He also denied that what Andrea went through with Matt constituted harassment. "Gilbert said the conclusion of the investigation was that 'they don't get along, they fight like cats and dogs, but there's no harassment here,'" the report states. And her AOC, Major Meyer, practically faulted Andrea for getting herself into the whole honor mess. "Did I use the term was her fault? I don't remember saying that specifically, but I might have alluded to it, saying that, you know, this whole thing is more or less your fault because, you know, if you would've ever just clarified yourself in a way, it would've never went to a board, it wouldn't ever have gotten this far."

More than a year after she should have graduated, Andrea, now 23 and still technically a cadet, waits to learn the outcome of her case, which rests with the Air Force secretary. For a long time after returning to her parents' house a year ago this week, she was so depressed that she rarely turned off the television or left the couch. Now she's finally starting to get on with her life, volunteering for the local fire department and trying not to be bitter.

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon