Sky Was Limit for Cadet, Until Her Harassment Complaint

Times Staff Writers

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.

"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.

Sexual assault is traumatic under any circumstances, but on a cloistered campus where cadets eat, sleep, study and train together under an honor code literally carved in stone, the sense of betrayal can be devastating.

From the moment they enter, freshmen are told that the Air Force is their family, that loyalty to their comrades is of life-and-death importance. But the danger is supposed to come later, in combat, not in school.

"The military teaches that you never leave a body on the battlefield. You put your own life at risk to retrieve someone because that's what it means to be a soldier," said Mary P. Koss, a University of Arizona public health professor who conducted the first national study of rape on college campuses. "Put rape into that context and you see why the women are having a hard time letting this go by. It violates their basic teachings. It's their version of 'friendly fire.' "

When sexual assault does occur, the military trails its civilian counterparts in victim support and protection, according to experts and officers.

Cadets, like any enlisted person, are subject to the control of the armed services. Constitutional rights are limited; by law, they cannot sue the government. There is no expectation of confidentiality. When a cadet reports a sexual assault, the women say, her conduct is often called into question by superiors.

Was she drinking? Fraternizing with upperclassmen? Although an amnesty program is designed to forgive lesser offenses so as to prosecute the greater crime, the system does not always work. A cadet's indiscretions can follow her for life and jeopardize her career as an officer. There is the risk that she will expose other classmates who might have been drinking at the time the alleged assault occurred. The pressure is enormous to suck it up and let it go, cadets and experts agree.

Counselors at a civilian rape crisis center in Colorado Springs say disturbing tales have been coming out of the academy for 15 years, including those of 38 female cadets who sought help after they said they had been raped.

According to Jennifer Bier, director of clinical services at TESSA -- or Trust, Education, Safety, Support, Action -- several cadets said they were ordered out of bed at night by upperclassmen and gang-raped. Officers ignored their reports, the women said, suggesting they somehow "asked for it."

The growing number of reports and the testimonials of concern by Air Force officers echo a similar scandal a decade ago. Then, a cadet reported being assaulted on Valentine's Day, prompting the superintendent to hold a private meeting with 501 female cadets. He asked how many knew of women who had been assaulted at the school; 205 said they did.

Not long after, the General Accounting Office conducted an investigation of the Air Force Academy, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., and found that as many as three-quarters of female cadets experienced various forms of harassment at least twice a month.

The military responded, creating, for instance, the Air Force's cadet-run CASIE program -- Cadets Advocating Sexual Integrity and Education. A hotline for reporting sexual misconduct was set up. A sexual assault awareness month was instituted. Posters went up on the walls, encouraging cadets to report rape; many thought the problem had been addressed.

West Point recorded one rape allegation last year, but the case was dismissed based on DNA evidence; Annapolis declined to release data regarding sexual assault reports.

But if the number of allegations at the Air Force Academy is any indication, some underlying message in the culture there seems to be undermining its zero-tolerance policy, critics say.

"I knew I would be disenrolled for everything he made me do in the dorms. And sometimes word gets around, it gets twisted. It would have caused a lot more problems than it would have solved," said Angela, an Air Force second lieutenant and recent academy graduate who says she was raped as a cadet. To use her full name now would imperil her military career, she said.

"The problem is they use secrecy to avoid a scandal," Archibald said. "The more sensitive and embarrassing the case, the less likely it is to be prosecuted."

Although no cadets have been court-martialed, academy officials say eight male cadets accused of sexual misconduct since 1996 have been expelled "for other reasons" and discharged from the Air Force. Disciplinary action against a ninth is pending.

In Andrea Prasse's case, at least three members of Congress from her home state of Wisconsin have weighed in, urging the Air Force to release her degree and to honorably discharge her from the Air Force. "This kid had a great record eight days prior to graduation, not a blemish. Then all of a sudden a ton of demerits are added to her record. From what we can tell, she was a great candidate to go to the Air Force Academy, and she made the system work, until the end," said Tom Schreibel, chief of staff for Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.).

It was then that the young man turned the tables, accusing her of an honor code violation, said Lester Pines, an attorney who represented her after the honor board hearing.

The charge centered on a project for an engine design class. Prasse was accused of saying she had drawn a single, 1-inch-long segment of a design when she had actually cut and pasted it from another group's work. She says she acknowledged from the start that she had cut and pasted, which was allowed under the rules. Her teacher supported her account, Pines said.

The board -- made up of seven cadets and no commissioned officers -- considered only the allegation of cheating; her charge of harassment was never investigated.

So, as with many cases at the academy where sexual misconduct or harassment is alleged, it remained her word against his.

"If an institution is incapable of responding to complaints of physical sexual assaults, is it even possible it can deal with sexual harassment that didn't rise to that level?" Pines asked.

When the honor board announced its finding -- guilty of lying -- Prasse collapsed on the floor and began to vomit.

Now, at her parents' home near Milwaukee, she waits for her lawyers to negotiate her case.

Last month, Lt. Gen. John R. Dallager, the academy superintendent, offered to allow Prasse to return on a six-month "honor probation" to complete training, graduate and be commissioned as a second lieutenant.

He called it "the best and most fair decision for Cadet Prasse, the academy and the Air Force."

Given her classmates' hostility -- several chat room missives on the cadet Web site read like threats -- Prasse says she is not eager to go back.

If she refuses, however, she faces three years of service as an enlisted person or repayment of $130,000 in tuition costs to the Air Force.

She has joined the local volunteer fire department to keep busy. Her dreams of piloting a Warthog are dead. And her career as an aeronautical engineer is uncertain.

Meanwhile, she said, the cadet who harassed her has graduated and is an Air Force officer, with a secured slot in pilot training school.

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Times staff writer Esther Schrader contributed to this report. Fiore reported from Washington and Kelly from Colorado Springs.

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.
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