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Sky Was Limit for Cadet, Until Her Harassment Complaint

Women say Air Force is indifferent to allegations of rape, other crimes.

March 12, 2003|Faye Fiore and David Kelly | Times Staff Writers

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Andrea Prasse, U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2002, was one of just two women graduating with a degree in aeronautical engineering. Her grades were exemplary, her record unblemished. Fresh-faced and physically fit, she had been singularly focused since age 12 on learning to pilot into combat an A-10 Warthog attack plane.

But along the way, a male classmate seemed to become singularly focused on Prasse. He stalked her for nearly a year, she said, demanding to know where she was going, whom she was with. She said he showed up at her dorm room uninvited, and she took to shoving towels under the door so he wouldn't know her light was on.

When she complained, she said, her superiors refused to intervene. Soon after, the cadet whom she had reported charged her with violating the academy's honor code by lying on a project. Eight days before graduation, Prasse was recommended for expulsion, her degree withheld.

The 22-year-old is one of dozens of current and former cadets who in the last decade have reported crimes ranging from harassment to rape, only to be met with retribution or indifference by their commanding officers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Air Force Academy -- A March 12 article in Section A about allegations of rape and sexual assault at the U.S. Air Force Academy incorrectly reported that a violation of the honor code against a cadet was heard by a board made up of seven cadets and no commissioned officer. There was one officer on the board.

"If her name had been Andrew Prasse, this wouldn't have happened," Carol Prasse said of her daughter. "These boys just don't get it. They are being raised to have no respect for women, and the attitude is fostered by the male officers in charge. My daughter asked for help, and they ignored her all the way up the chain of command."

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, Air Force Secretary James Roche defended the decision to handle allegations of sexual misconduct at the academy internally rather than to bring in outside investigators; Air Force officials, he said, are fully capable of conducting the probe.

Roche also revealed that some of the alleged victims were civilians. Officials now are investigating 56 reports of rape and sexual assault, he said. Last week, testifying on Capitol Hill, he acknowledged that "there are probably a hundred more that we do not see."

Complaints by dozens of current and former female cadets depict an academy that is generally hostile to women, where unwanted sexual advances and outright assaults go unpunished and the disciplinary system penalizes the victim more harshly than the assailant.

Indeed, all Prasse may have to show for the four years of rigor that put her in the top third of her class is an FBI file that flags her as a "person of questionable character," Carol Prasse said.

The academy declined to comment on Prasse's case, saying it is under investigation with the others. But her experience illustrates the sort of harsh retaliation alleged by dozens of women who have complained of misconduct by male cadets -- whether it is harassment, assault or rape.

"Rape has been a dirty secret at the [academy] for over 20 years," wrote one female cadet in an e-mail circulated in recent months to her counterparts. She said she was raped, but her report to superiors was ignored and her case never prosecuted. The academy's "leaders know about what goes on, but won't do anything that may hurt the academy's reputation."

Since 1996, 99 reports of sexual assault have been received by the academy's hotline. But no cadet has been court-martialed for allegedly sexually assaulting another cadet, officials confirmed.

When the latest complaints were made public recently, Roche flew to Colorado Springs to warn 4,000 cadets that "bums" and "criminals" would be ferreted out. A team from the Pentagon is conducting an on-site probe. Air Force officials are already instituting reforms, including creating gender-separate dorms. Lawmakers have called for an independent inquiry of sexual assault at all the military service academies.

One recent afternoon, cadets at the Air Force Academy strode purposefully, identical blue uniforms crisply pressed, black shoes gleaming. With their hair pinned snugly beneath their caps, the women are scarcely discernible from the men. They are accomplished athletes and scholars recommended for admission by a member of Congress; some are descendants of decorated war heroes. They receive a free education valued at $350,000 in exchange for a service commitment of at least five years.

Experts blame the scandal on the demographics of the place as much as on its culture. The academy has accepted women since 1976, and still only 18% of the student population is female. Deference to command is sacrosanct; upperclassmen hold rank and underlings are expected to follow orders without question.

"As a young freshman, you have to take what's given to you. And it's always a test to see how much you can take. If something bad does happen, the answer is always, 'No sir, I'm OK,' " said Susan Archibald, a former academy professor and alumna who says she was raped by an Air Force priest she had turned to for counseling as a cadet. She is suing the Air Force.

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