The Air Force's top general apologized Friday to the 54 female cadets who said they were raped or sexually assaulted at the U.S. Air Force Academy over the last decade but said he had no plans to fire anyone "just to grab tomorrow morning's headlines."
"I apologize to any victim who is still out there," said Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff. "But I am not going to sit here and say I am firing the current leadership. Changes will be made, but I am going to fix the problem first and I don't think the problems start with the current generation of leadership."
Jumper, who spent two days at the beleaguered academy in closed-door talks with cadets and officers, told reporters he wanted all victims to come forward and would consider amnesty for those who broke academy rules before their attacks.
He also announced that he and Air Force Secretary James Roche would write letters to the families of all incoming female cadets vouching for the climate and safety of the institution.
"We will assure them that they can be proud of this institution," Jumper said.
Roche has ordered the inspector general's office of the Department of Defense to examine all rape complaints to see if due process was followed.
The Air Force Academy has been shaken over the last few weeks by escalating charges from current and former cadets saying they were raped or sexually assaulted by male cadets and officers and then ignored or retaliated against when they complained. And the numbers continue to rise -- from 25 last week to 54 as of Friday.
Reports of sexual assault aren't new to the academy. A 1994 report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said 78% of the 90 women at the academy had been victims of unwanted sexual advances or assault.
The Air Force, desperate to control the widening scandal, has dispatched investigators to the academy to examine its policies toward sexual assault.
They want to find ways to let women report rape without retribution or a paper trail following them during their career.
Many victims said they had been drinking or fraternizing with upperclassmen when the attacks occurred and those infractions, rather than the sexual assaults, were raised when they filed complaints.
Female cadets have said they were ordered out of bed by upperclassmen, who have authority over them, and gang-raped or raped multiple times. Perpetrators were rarely punished, they said. One cadet told a counselor her attacker was made to write a paper as punishment.
Jumper admitted he didn't know whether any academy cadet or staff member had ever been prosecuted in a sexual assault.
"I am not up to speed on numbers," he said.
Unlike last week's blistering speech by Roche to the 4,000 cadets in which he repeatedly called those who committed sexual assaults "bums" and "criminals," Jumper was circumspect, seemingly more interested in boosting academy morale than affixing blame.
"I wanted to reassure the vast majority of them of the confidence we have in them," Jumper said. "I also told them there is no such thing as loyalty by silence."
Cadets told him they were distraught that their reputations were being sullied by a scandal that dwarfs the 1991 Tailhook incident, when drunken Navy and Marine aviators sexually assaulted dozens of servicewomen in a Las Vegas hotel.
Jumper said the way sexual assaults are investigated will change. Cases now drag on with appeal after appeal while victim and perpetrator live side by side at the academy, he said.
"We need to maintain the basic human dignity of males and females in this very intense situation where they live together and do military duty together virtually 24 hours a day," he said. "There has to be a separation that provides for human dignity. I'm not sure we have done that as well as we could."
Rape counselors said there are probably many more cadets who have been assaulted and not spoken about it.
"This is the tip of the iceberg," said Cari Davis, executive director of TESSA, a civilian rape-crisis center in Colorado Springs that has counseled 22 female cadets in the last 15 years.
Davis said the Air Force asked whether her organization -- whose acronym stands for Trust, Education, Safety, Support, Action -- would share details about their clients or persuade them to come forward.
"They said they couldn't guarantee anonymity, so I am not optimistic that we will have any willing to come forward and talk," she said.
Davis said the biggest problem at the academy is a lack of confidentiality. "I am not an expert on Air Force procedures, but I think they need to find a way to make confidentiality practical," she said.
"I'd like to talk to the victims," he said. "If we can only do it confidentially or privately then we'll consider it."