Sexual turbulence in Colorado Springs

The Air Force Academy's new hard-line policies will curb rape and harassment -- but they don't do enough to protect the victims.

Published April 18, 2003 7:31PM (EDT)

With one Pentagon investigation complete, two more underway, and a fourth still pending, an Air Force "implementation team" arrived here this week to initiate changes designed to end a sordid history of cadet rapes and leadership indifference that broke in the media several months ago. The team has orders to literally transform campus culture, leaving intact the tools necessary to "cultivate a warrior spirit," while purging elements that helped create a climate of sexual harassment and assault that goes back at least a decade.

The blueprint for the operation, called the Agenda for Change, takes on half a century of entrenched military tradition, and toppled two key symbols of the old regime right away. In a surprise move, the Pentagon sacked the senior leadership of the academy -- both generals and two top colonels -- and then removed the enormous sign that commanded "BRING ME MEN ..." from the center of campus, leaving a naked granite wall in its place.

Both steps stunned the inhabitants of this sequestered compound, who were still reeling from months of media coverage about cadet rapes and the botched investigations that followed. But faculty members, cadets and military scholars, impressed as they were by the scope and breadth of the proposed changes, are not convinced that the academy's culture can be cracked -- even by 49 bullet points of reform and new leadership. And rape counselors have no doubt: The agenda overlooks key aspects of victim psychology -- above all, the need for confidentiality -- necessary to make the academy safe for its students.

"The first or second question from the victim is nearly always 'Is this confidential? Will you call the [military leadership]?'" says Christine Hansen, founder of the Miles Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to victims of domestic abuse in the military. "If they don't establish confidentiality immediately, the victim is out the door."

For its part, the Air Force chose a response -- swift and hard-hitting -- that tackled the basic charges: that crimes had occurred in the ranks and the perpetrators escaped prosecution and discipline. With military precision, the Agenda for Change addresses the issue of finding and neutralizing the enemy, leaving more ephemeral and emotional issues to work themselves out. While well-intended, say critics of the reforms, they are too official and too narrowly focused for the intimate and emotionally complex crime of rape.

And yet the change that victims' advocates are seeking -- for the Air Force to relinquish primary control over cases of sexual assault -- is regarded as equally unrealistic in a community where control and loyalty must be total for complete success.

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Since the first public report of sexual attacks at the academy appeared in January in Westword, a scrappy Denver-based weekly, Pentagon investigators have learned of 56 cases of sexual assault, and acknowledged that academy leadership mishandled some of them. Congress has presided over weeks of hearings on the scandal, and early this month, Sens. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., and John McCain, R-Ariz., tore into Air Force Secretary James Roche for defending academy leaders that he reassigned as the crisis exploded in the media. The Senate has since authorized a fourth, independent team, to be appointed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to assign blame for the crisis, even as the implementation team begins its mission to bring specific reforms to campus.

Those reforms go to the essence of academy doctrine -- loyalty and its expression within the corps -- to stress personal responsibility, eliminate opportunities for intimidation and humiliation, and promote open communication, despite longstanding codes of silence. In specific, the changes propose beefing up adult oversight and weakening the student chain of command -- stripping sophomores of authority over freshmen, for instance. Taken together, the reforms suggest an ambitious and thoroughgoing overhaul of academy structure that took professors, cadets and military scholars by surprise.

"If this had been a one-page document saying 'zero tolerance' that a commander could read one morning in front of formation, then I would have been disappointed," said professor Melissa Embser-Herbert, a sociologist specializing in women in the military and author of "Camouflage Isn't Only for Combat: Gender, Sexuality, and Women in the Military." "The fact that it's fairly detailed and conveys that someone put a lot of thought into this thing should convey that, 'We're not just doing something to please Congress.'"

A sign of the Air Force's seriousness was its willingness to suggest changes that affect the guiding principle of the academy model -- the same principle employed at West Point, the Naval Academy, and the services' officer candidate training schools. That approach has been to overwhelm the cadet with so much stress, from so many different angles, that he or she cannot possibly overcome them individually. "They artificially create crises to make people work together," says professor Lance Janda, a military historian specializing in women in the military. He spent five years researching the book "Stronger than Custom: West Point and the Admission of Women."

Because military doctrine since World War II holds that men and women in battle do not fight to stay alive -- they fight to keep their comrades alive -- the concepts of "unit cohesion" and "esprit de corps" take on religious significance to combat commanders. In an effort to produce model soldiers, the academies drive these concepts to the extreme. They have been successful at instilling group cohesion; but, as demonstrated by the rape crisis, they eventually suffered from their own success.

"Once the group pulls together, when an individual does the wrong thing" -- rapes a junior cadet for instance -- "the instinct is to say 'My loyalty to the group means I have to cover for this individual,'" Janda says. Faced with crisis, the group circles the wagons, and anyone threatening a group member becomes the enemy -- including a member of the group.

In this climate, a rape accusation threatens not only a group member, it also tarnishes the integrity of the unit. This plays right into another core concept at the academies: the constant indoctrination that cadets are elite, special, superior to civilians. The prospect of a rapist in their ranks threatens to shatter the group's reputation. "We are members of the profession of arms, the noblest of professions" wrote incoming Commandant General John Weida to cadets last week in an introductory e-mail titled "Getting Started."

The phenomenon is similar to the code of silence in police units, but with troubling complications. Age and power provide the most striking differences: Imagine the thin blue line manned by adolescents. Imagine a rogue cop with not just power over a subordinate's career, but over his ability to eat, sleep or go to the bathroom.

"When a freshman wants to leave his room just to go to the bathroom, he puts himself at risk," an academy professor said. Lurking around any corner lies a potential upperclassman with the power to stop him, haze him, berate him, drop him for pushups and issue demerits. "It's a high-anxiety situation," the professor said.

Compounding that anxiety is the official power that upperclassmen have wielded in academy hierarchy. A cadet's entire chain of command, through five levels of superior officers, is composed exclusively of fellow students. The first officer to appear with command authority is the commandant of the entire academy, the general serving a role akin to dean of students.

The system is designed to thrust responsibility upon the young cadet until it becomes second nature. But when an angry, vindictive adolescent gets hold of that much power, the combination can be unnecessarily destructive.

"Any sophomore who's pissed off for any reason can just shit on a doolie just because he can," said a high-ranking military professor at the academy. And sophomores, fresh and bitter from their own relentless year of hazing, tend to be anxious to dish it back out to the next class most viciously.

"It's a tremendous amount of power for a 19-year-old to hold over an 18-year-old," the professor said. Even cadets are daunted by the power they wield. "Last summer I was a colonel in the academy," said senior Andy Allen. "I had power over 2,000 people. Despite that, I was 21 years old."

While they don't dismantle the chain of command at the academy, the proposed reforms take a hefty bite out its most dangerous elements -- sufficient, the Pentagon hopes, to rein in wayward cadets playing dictator in their own private fiefdoms. Instead of a single general commanding 4,200 cadets, one major will now command each squadron of about 120. Those officers are in place already, but only in an administrative role. They will now assume command, a drastic change in military governance.

New rules require most of these officers to be one rank and several years older than the current crop -- with significant other military perks certain to a attract a higher caliber of officer. Sophomores, currently vested with primary responsibility for training the freshmen in military knowledge, will transfer that duty to seniors. The changes "should prevent most opportunities for abuse of power relationships," said Pentagon spokesman and academy graduate Capt. Peter Kerr.

A new law-and-order system is designed to "enhance officer supervision of the cadet wing," said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dewey Ford. A round-the-clock dorm security and monitoring system will be implemented. An officer will be placed on duty at all times in the dorms. He or she will manage a roving patrol nights and weekends. Upperclassmen will no longer be permitted to burst into the room of opposite-sex subordinates to force them carry out orders. Cadets will now be required to knock and wait for the occupant to open the door. Doors must now remain fully open whenever visitors are present.

Perhaps the most significant change is a mandatory and blanket amnesty that absolves nearly all cadets from offenses discovered during a sexual-assault investigation. (Drinking is the most common.) The Air Force included a few exceptions to the rule meant to crack the cadet code of silence: Anyone covering up a sexual assault or impeding the investigation loses amnesty for their own infractions, hopefully tilting the scales in a battle of divided loyalties. The senior ranking cadet present is also excluded, and will now be held accountable for all infractions committed by subordinates. This puts one person at tremendous risk for underage or dormitory drinking -- intended to reduce situations that later descend into rape.

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While outsiders focused on concrete changes to academy rules, military scholars said subtler themes in the agenda could prove more influential. They advised critics against viewing academy culture through a civilian lens. In a world that revolves around the idea of honor, they say, "disloyalty" and "dishonor" are fighting words, making the language in the agenda a huge institutional leap. The agenda acknowledged "misguided loyalty" and abuse of the honor code, and put cadets on notice against hiding behind the letter of the code. Those passages could have enormous impact, said Embser-Herbert. "That's how so much of this operates."

Nonetheless, rape counselors and other victim advocates quietly fumed about the proposal's inadequacies. By focusing so intently on its own culture, they say, the military lost sight of a second, and perhaps more dominant imperative: the necessity to acknowledge and incorporate the psychology of victims in rules proposed to deal with sexual assault.

The proposed changes go to great lengths to create a climate in which blame might be easier to place on the perpetrator, acknowledge critics of the reforms, but they don't do enough to make victims feel safe enough to report the crime. It is a dilemma common to civilian courts as well -- victims need protection, but it cannot come at the expense of the rights of the accused. Unfortunately, the Air Force, say these critics, tends to sacrifice the victim in order to quickly catch and prosecute the offender.

Evidence of this oversight is clear, say victims' advocates: By demanding that rapes be reported by anyone with knowledge of the attack, regardless of a victim's wish for anonymity, the military fails to give assaulted cadets a grace period in which to get counseling and relief from their trauma -- a period during which they might decide not to initiate formal proceedings against their attackers.

"It's still the same mantra of, 'You've got to report,'" says said Cari Davis, executive director of Tessa, the Colorado Springs domestic violence agency that counseled many of the academy assault victims. "And anyone who doesn't report is a criminal."

Anyone seeking help from the academy's counseling center or peer counseling program will effectively have gone public about the crime, ceding full control to the commander. Even medical attention will close out a victim's options. Victims' advocates were thrilled that medical facilities on the academy campus will now stock rape kits and be staffed with personnel trained to use them (though they wondered what took so long). But they blanched at the prospect of medical staff as informants.

Even more troubling, say the advocates, is the fact that a close friend or roommate in whom a victim confides is legally bound to report on her behalf. Davis said most rape victims suffer some level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), making it essential that they talk to someone about the attack. Isolating her at this pivotal moment -- or adding the stress and guilt of putting her best friend at risk -- can seriously exacerbate the psychological trauma, she says. Said Jennifer Bier, director of Tessa's clinical services, "Victims have to have a right to talk to somebody and have that held in confidence."

By giving control of complaints to commanding officers, who routinely function as cop, judge and jury in assault cases, the military builds dangerous subjectivity into what is a serious criminal matter, say the advocates. Air Force officials have failed to grasp that many victims will never trust academy commanders as impartial since, with a investment of more than $300,000 per cadet, the academy, and its commanders, start with a bias, say critics.

Commanders often bond with cadets, commonly viewing them like sons, say victim advocates. Rapists can be solid performers in other areas, and commanders may find it difficult to conceive of a young man they admire attacking a woman. The situation is rife with conflicts of interest, Davis said. She paraphrased her victims' take on their commanders this way: "I'm going to throw out my best guy, who could be one of my best pilots, because some girl who was drunk says she was sexually assaulted?"

And finally, by failing to make a provision to keep such events out of a cadet's permanent record, the academy, say rape counselors, discourages victims from reporting sexual assault for fear of ruining their chances for advancement in their careers. "These medical records and mental health records must be kept separate and sealed," Davis said. The officer corps is a very small community, and "the higher up you go, the tighter the circle." The "inappropriate sharing" of information has to stop if they expect anyone to come forward, Tessa says.

Medical records are a particular concern, especially since PTSD is such a common effect of sexual attack. Many cadets expect to fly fighter jets one day, and shudder at anything that could hinder doctor's clearance years down the road. "Your record shows PTSD from a sexual assault and you might be grounded," Davis says. While she has no direct knowledge of a pilot being grounded that way, Davis says she has repeated firsthand knowledge of academy victims fearing those long-term consequences. The perception runs strongly that reporting a rape represents a risky career move.

The Air Force did make significant moves in its proposal to improve commander responsiveness -- once an assault is reported. The reforms decree that new majors, to whom a cadet would report an assault, must receive a year of full-time graduate school in order to acquire a master's degree in counseling before reporting to the academy. The process is supposed to be repeated with each new round of commanders.

It is a huge step, but the Air Force still fails a crucial test, says Hansen of the Miles Foundation, which has dealt with more than 10,000 cases of military domestic violence since 1996. Victims of assault are still afraid to come forward, she says, even to the most understanding commander, because those commanders are required to report to Air Force leadership.

Bier and her colleagues acknowledged positive measures in the plan and say they have no doubt Air Force leaders are sincere in their desire to root out all sex offenders under their command. But without confidentiality, and a place outside the military to find comfort and help, victims of assault will stay quiet, they say.

"The military has to realize it is in their best interest to collaborate with civilian authorities in this area," says Hansen. She points to fairly simple solutions. Put up Tessa posters with hotline numbers around campus. The system is already in place; the group already runs four centers in Colorado Springs that serve 800 abuse cases a year. Or bring in another civilian agency. Davis says Tessa is prepared to respond immediately, "But if it's not us, it should be somebody."

In a best-case scenario, Tessa would open an additional outreach center on campus, in a discreet location, she said. Worst case, the academy would introduce its own professional, confidential counseling service, though it's unlikely victims would trust the same system that just let them down.

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Many observers -- current faculty, military scholars and victims' advocates -- argue that sexual abuse of women at the academy, and commanders making light of their charges, are both symptoms of a deeper problem that cannot necessarily be changed by new rules: the failure of male cadets to fully accept women. A new Veterans Affairs study published in the March American Journal of Industrial Medicine justifies the concern. "Officer leadership played an important role in the military environment and safety of women," it concluded. It found that officers who permitted sexual harassment saw four times the level of rapes in their units.

Women may now play an integral role in the military, but some men still only accept them grudgingly, particularly in elite areas like the Air Force Academy. Embser-Herbert describes the attitude as "We know we need you, but we still don't really want you here."

The removal of the "BRING ME MEN" sign, long a focus of bitter debate at the academy, promises to ease some of the conflict at the school, or, at the very least, relieve female cadets of a daily reminder of their shaky status there. At the same time, however, the divide between the sexes is in danger of being reinforced by one of the most controversial elements in proposed changes for the academy. The Pentagon, after having a tentative proposal to segregate women in the barracks shot down, outlined a plan to segregate dorms during the initial six-week basic training. During the academic year, women will be housed within their squadron, but "clustered" near the women's bathrooms.

Academy scholars say the military is playing with fire in contemplating any change that could look like special rules or special handling for women. The more visible the distinction, the more likely to inflame those men already opposed to female presence. Angry males will say, "We've got to have women here, but we need all these special rules to protect them," Embser-Herbert said.

It is one thing to confer victim status -- and a measure of confidentiality -- on cadets who have been sexually assaulted, say critics of the changes. It is another to suggest that female cadets need protection simply because they are women. "It sends the wrong message to the women there," professor Hillman said. "It's as if we're saying, 'You need to be protected.' These are women who are going to be officers in the Air Force. They are going to do the protecting. When you're perceived as a victim, it makes it difficult to assert power and authority."

Resistance to the proposal is fierce inside the academy, among women as well as men. "I think integration is very important," said junior Daneta Jablonsky. "Once we graduate we will be in charge of leading both men and women and we need to learn how to live together first. [The change] can be a hindrance."

Adds junior Alexis Fear, "To separate them even more could be a big problem unless they're careful about it."

Ironically, opposition to segregation of any kind at the academy may have the effect of eliminating some of the hostility between male and female cadets. According to professors and cadets, the intense scrutiny and steady drumbeat of criticism created by the sexual assault charges have caused cadets to pull together -- much as they have been taught to do in battle. The suggestion that they be separated pushed them together even more.

Said a long-time academy professor, "Even the men think it's ridiculous that the women be segregated. They're all united against that policy."

Male and female cadets also tend to feel that the media has blown the story out of proportion, and they are angry at their leadership for blaming its own failings on them.

"The tension here has been huge," says Fear. "Especially the male cadets feel attacked -- that they're aggressive, horrible rapists."

Added a faculty member, "[Cadets] were outraged when Roche claimed in a speech to the whole cadet corps that it was a 'cadet problem,' not a leadership issue. And the vast majority of female cadets feel demeaned by being overprotected by the leadership's tin-eared, paternalistic responses."

But anger at what Cadet Ryan Argenta describes as "the swarm that hit us" doesn't mean they're wallowing in denial. Cadets found the charges hard to believe at first, but most came around as the shock wore off and evidence mounted. "It's no longer a matter of this can't be true," Argenta said. "Changes are definitely needed."

A week after their return from spring break, some cadets were feeling guardedly optimistic. Retrenchment on women's segregation was unpopular, and removal of the campus sign was still the subject of hot debate, but most of the changes were quite popular. No cadet would go on the record with glee about the personnel changes, but faculty described them as "ecstatic" about the removal of Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III and Col. Laurie Slavec.

But a common theme in nearly every cadet interview was how much the crisis -- not the reforms -- had drawn men and women together. Each sex felt attacked in different ways, but the outside pressure had united them against a common foe.

"We've been through so much together," senior Andy Allen said. "We're going to stick together and we're going to make it on into the Air Force."

By Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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