COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Against a backdrop of the Rampart Range's snow-flecked peaks, looming high over the main campus square, big block letters spell out The United States Air Force Academy's honor code: "We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does."
It's a sentence that's emphasized from the first day of cadet training, when a cream-of-the-crop corps of teenagers arrives with dreams of flying F-16s, serving their country, and being a part of the rigor, camaraderie, and moral certitude of this storied institution.
But now the Academy's honor is under siege as much as at any time in its 48-year history. A growing rape scandal is raising tough questions about a male-dominated military culture - and about a leadership structure that may have both allowed it to happen and left it unpunished.
The Academy says it has received 56 reports of sexual assault in the past 10 years - although research on rape reporting suggests the number of actual assaults may be far higher.
In many ways this school - where women were first admitted in 1976 and now comprise one-sixth of the cadet corps - is like so many other colleges: Young adults, alcohol, and newfound freedom combine to create complex - sometimes violent - relationships.
Yet it's also one of America's highest profile academic-military institutions. It's the alma mater of top pilots, generals, and politicians - a place where character and careers are often more important than classes and athletics.
Indeed, the scandal has quickly climbed to the top echelons of government and the military, eliciting comments from President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as harsh criticism from Air Force Secretary James Roche. Colorado Congressmen have called for the dismissal of the Academy's two top officers, Lt. Gen. John Dallager, the superintendent, and Brig. Gen. Taco Gilbert, the commandant. Two Pentagon teams are here this week, investigating specific cases and examining what systemic changes might be needed.
As the probe continues, it's crucial to remember that "Cadets are basically college students who happen to wear uniforms," says David Segal, head of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland at College Park. Yet there are big differences in the Academy's culture and leadership: "Where the Air Force Academy seems to have fallen behind the power curve," he says, "is in the propensity to blame the victims."
Indeed even as scrutiny intensifies, some familiar with the Academy wonder how sincere the probe is, and how much impact the final changes will have.
"Should it be changed? Yes. Will it be changed? I doubt it. I don't believe that the leadership within the Academy believes it's their fault," says a woman who used to teach at the Academy and has stayed current through friends and colleagues. "Part of it is human nature. Part is the military macho thing. Part is bureaucracy." She knows first-hand how assault charges are sometimes viewed. When she was teaching here, she sat on an officer board that reviewed two cases - one for rape, one for sexual harassment. In both cases, the cadet board that first hears such cases recommended discharging the men involved. In both cases, the officer board agreed.
But in both cases, she says, the recommendation was overturned - one by the superintendent at the time, and one after pressure from a politician who knew the cadet's father. The male cadets stayed at the Academy, and the women who accused them - faced with ostracism and seeing their assaulter each day - chose to leave.
Since then, says the teacher, "it has not changed at all as far as how these things are handled." The cadets, she says, are generally outstanding students. It's the leadership that is to blame.
Indeed, many of today's cadets are confused, and frustrated, especially by what they see as inaccurate media portrayals that paint them all as either monsters or victims. A few restaurants in town have even refused to serve them, and some cadets' cars have been egged.
"This was as much a shock to us when it came out as it was to people outside the Academy," says Carmine Muscarella, a polite, stocky senior who will is headed to pilot school in Mississippi. "A lot of cadets were hurt," he says, "by the fact that people jumped to the worst possible conclusions."
Muscarella and other cadets call each other their "sisters and brothers" and say trust is intrinsic. "From Day 1 we're taught loyalty," says Stacie Hartert, a junior from Wichita, Kan., who's majoring in social sciences and plans a career in counseling. Still, Muscarella says the scrutiny is a chance to change the Academy, and the military as a whole, for the better. "Questions are always good," he says. "We've been given a great opportunity to look at the social issues here."
A few areas of concern have surfaced, including a hierarchy that gives upperclassmen near-total control over freshmen, or "doolies." "Lowerclassmen kind of exist at the whim of upperclassmen," says Kate Summers of The Miles Foundation, a nonprofit in Newtown, Conn., that examines domestic abuse and sexual assault in the military. "Freshmen are like slaves. Because of that, you have very systemic problems, with the Academy as well as within the military."
The system of reporting is also problematic. If a cadet chooses to report an assault, she must go through her chain of command. There is little confidentiality, and the process becomes part of her permanent military record. Some women have said they were afraid it would hurt their career, or bring ostracism from their peers.
Sexual assault is certainly not unique to the Academy, but at other colleges the stakes aren't as high, notes Cari Davis, director of TESSA, the local rape crisis center. "This isn't just college, it's a career," she says. "What happens follows you." TESSA, which stands for Trust Education Safety Support Action, has heard from at least 38 cadets in the past 12 years or so, including a couple who were gang raped, says Ms. Davis.
Then there's the follow-up that cases receive, which sometimes involves punishment for the victim. A female cadet who reports a rape might find herself investigated for infractions like drinking or fraternizing with upperclassmen. Even if amnesty is granted, it often extends only to the night of the assault - so that a woman could still be punished for earlier infractions that emerge as part of the investigation. In many cases, women say they were simply called liars.
Some of this echoes problems in the broader military, which hasn't made people accountable for gender relations, says Dr. Segal. The Army, he says, has a section on its officer efficiency report that evaluates how well officers deal with the racial climate among their troops. There's no such thing for gender relations. "The message is: 'If you have race problems and you don't fix them you're history. If you have gender problems - well, that's one factor that will go into the mix.' "
Academy officials, however, say media reports of assaulters getting off unpunished have been exaggerated. Though formal discipline is rare - in the past 10 years, only two cadets have actually been charged with rape, one of whom was acquitted - officials say harsh disciplinary actions are often taken. Privacy laws prohibit them from releasing specifics.
The Pentagon hopes to make its recommendations later this month, says Air Force Lt. Col. Dewey Ford. Reform proposals may include segregating cadet dorms by sex - an idea that sexual-assault groups say would exacerbate the problem - and training Air Force nurses and investigators to deal with sexual assaults.
Ultimately, says the former teacher, real change needs to come from shifting attitudes and positive leadership, not more rules. "We have an honor code. We're supposed to be honorable people," she says. "We're not perfect, but we ought to try to be."
• Staff writer Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.