COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Early this year, well before the calls for congressional hearings and federal investigations, an anonymous e-mail began circulating in select circles on the pristine campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
The e-mail counseled female cadets on what to do if they were sexually assaulted. Nowhere did it advise to report the crime to their superiors at the academy.
"The undercurrent was, don't trust the system," said U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson (R., N.M.), an academy graduate herself, adding that the note was so widely circulated that it eventually reached the Pentagon.
The e-mail turned out to be among the first public signs that a much deeper problem existed in one of the nation's top military schools. Since then, the Air Force has acknowledged that at least 56 current and former female cadets were sexually assaulted over the last decade, and that many hesitated reporting the attacks for fear it would compromise their military careers.
Cadets who did speak up have said they were either ignored, disciplined, or called outright liars by their academy superiors, while their attackers went unpunished.
The devastating revelations have resulted in three military investigations into the academy's handling of sexual-assault cases, in part at the urging of Sen. Wayne Allard (R., Colo.), whose office has received calls in the last several months from 39 women - 25 former cadets, 13 current cadets, and one civilian - who say they were sexually assaulted.
The results of one of the investigations are expected to be released later this week.
Interviews with current and former cadets and military experts suggest that despite having admitted women for more than 20 years, the academy remains a male-dominated institution, particularly in the higher echelons, with a culture that unabashedly favors men over women.
A message engraved for more than three decades on a ramp at one of the academy's entrances sums it up: "Bring Me Men."
"There's a climate at the academy that makes it difficult for a victim of sexual assault to come forward, and that is retaliation," said Wilson, a1982 graduate who served several years in the Air Force.
"At the academy," she said, "if a guy's buddies decide to protect him, they control whether the victim eats, sleeps, uses the telephone, leaves the campus, even how many push-ups she does... . So the opportunity to retaliate and to force somebody out is greater."
Academy officials, while acknowledging that their institution has a problem, have said the school does take rape allegations seriously, and has in the last decade established a number of sexual-assault awareness programs, as well as a 24-hour hotline.
Academy critics counter that the hotline is staffed by cadets, who while well-meaning might not have the proper experience to counsel rape victims. Complicating matters is that victims have difficulty accessing necessary services - such as nurses specially trained in processing rape kits - given the campus' isolated location and the academy's strict rules governing when cadets can come and go.
"I think it's your worst nightmare to be raped in the military," said Dorothy Mackey, a former Air Force officer and founder of Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel. "You can't access help without going through your military command... and I think of the military as a combination of the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan, and a religious cult. Only the military is legal."
Mackey said that both male and female cadets give up many of their freedoms once they step on to the 18,000-acre campus at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
As freshmen, cadets are not allowed to use the phone or have visitors during the week. Weekend passes are limited, and straying too far from campus is difficult given that cadets cannot own a car their first two years.
"As soon as you enter the academy, you're trained to obey orders and to think as part of a group," said Kate Summers, advocacy director for the Connecticut-based Miles Foundation, which serves military victims and survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse. "You're being placed in situations where you have no control."
Sharon Fullilove, 21, knows that feeling well. The former cadet was raped in1999, three months into her first year at the academy.
It happened on a Saturday night. Fullilove and some of her friends were leaving one of the gathering halls on campus when an upperclassman from her squadron offered to drive them back to their dormitories.
The man dropped her friends off first. And on the way to Fullilove's dorm, he pulled the car to the side of a dark, deserted road that winds around the academy, and raped her. She fought, she said, but couldn't ward him off.
Returning to her room, she tried to calm herself, and decided she should not tell anyone and should put the attack behind her. But the next day, the cadet came to her room to talk about what had happened. Because he was an upperclassman, she said, she was forced to stand up and salute him. "That was it for me," she said last week. "I knew I couldn't be there anymore."
Fullilove, now at the University of Arizona studying biology and pre dentistry, left the academy immediately after the attack. Several months later, and after much heartache, she decided to report the rape to the academy's Office of Special Investigations.
She said academy officials first interviewed people close to her, including her stepfather. And when they questioned her, they said her story was inconsistent with what others had said.
"They said to me, 'You're lying,' " Fullilove said. "I felt like I had been victimized twice."
Her attacker, she said, is now an Air Force officer. At the time of the attack, he was a volunteer with the campus rape-counseling service. "As far as I know, nothing ever happened to him," she said.
According to academy officials, 23 cadets have been punished for sexual misconduct between 1990 and 2002. Punishments ranged from reprimands to imprisonment. Since 1996, eight cadets have been kicked out of the academy and the Air Force for sexual misconduct.
It is extremely difficult to determine whether female cadets in the Air Force are more likely to be sexually assaulted than their civilian or military counterparts - primarily because military women keep quiet out of concern for their careers.
At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, 15 cases of sexual assault were reported between August 1999 and last month. Of the 15 cases, four of which were rape allegations, 10 resulted in the accused cadet's resigning or leaving campus, an academy spokesman said.
Officials at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis declined to release similar information on the subject.
A 1996 Defense Department study showed that 55 percent of military women reported experiencing some kind of sexual trauma ranging from harassment to rape, compared with 24 percent of women in the civilian world.
Wilson, the congresswoman, also said that a recent survey of senior female cadets showed that 60 percent believed that if they reported a sexual assault, the academy would not handle it properly and their attackers would not be punished.
The anonymous e-mail that circulated around the academy earlier this year advised contacting a private rape- counseling center in Colorado Springs.
Counselors at that center, called TESSA (Trust-Education-Safety-Support-Action), have been interviewed by military investigators. They estimate they have counseled 38 cadets in the last 12years, of whom only about one-fourth had reported the attacks to the academy, said Cari Davis, TESSA's chief executive officer and president.
Fullilove said last week that she did not regret going public with what happened to her. In some very small way, she said, it has helped quiet her anger over having to let go of her lifelong dream of becoming a pilot.
"But I don't know that you ever completely get over it," she said. "Because I'm not going to be a pilot; I'm not going to go to war. And I'm not going to be an officer in the Air Force."
Contact staff writer Angela Couloumb is at 609-989-9016 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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