Academy culture and sex charges
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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.