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A.F. Academy cleanup not a moment too soon

As the nation has been engrossed in round-the-clock news coverage of American troops engaged in bloody battles in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. Air Force has been quietly cleaning house at the Air Force Academy in response to a decade-long sexual assault scandal.

At least 56 allegations of sexual assaults or harassment at the academy over the past decade have been documented. When some of the victims reported the alleged assaults, they were reportedly punished by superiors or ostracized by their peers. Worse yet, some were made to believe that reporting the offenses would jeopardize their military careers. At least three investigative teams are reviewing the rape reports.

The Air Force's response to remedying this scandal has been to install new leaders, two of them women; cluster female cadets' rooms in coed dormitories; set down stricter dorm rules; and provide blanket amnesty for victims to ensure they are not punished for their own infractions when they report an assault.

Academy officials also plan to replace the words "Bring Me Men," which adorn the academy's Terrazzo wall, with something that more appropriately reflects a coed institution. The academy, which opened in 1955, admitted its first class of female cadets in 1976.

I had occasion to meet some of the first female cadets who attended the academy during my college debate days. They were remarkable young women, trailblazers in their own right. But my sense of them was it was absolutely exhausting to be a female cadet. They were all business, never to engage in girl talk or socialize with us outside the speech and debate tournaments. They didn't dare let down their guard for a second lest their conduct be construed as weak or vulnerable.

The male cadets I knew were much more social beings. They attended parties after the tournaments, they palled around with civilian competitors. I think it only fair that I mention that every male cadet I came to know in those years was a perfect gentleman as far as I was concerned.

Yet I was sometimes under the impression that some cadets didn't like having women in their ranks. I would sometimes pick up bits of conversations in which civilian men and male cadets alike would speculate about the sexual preferences of some of the female cadets. Sometimes the male cadets inferred that life at the academy was easier for women than men.

This was hardly a culture that would encourage young women to report crimes, let alone offenses of a sexual nature.

All cadets enter the academy aware of its intense physical and academic demands. Young women who are nominated to the academy know going in that they will be vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts. I doubt any of them signed on with the expectation that reporting sexual offenses against them would jeopardize all of their hard work toward becoming an Air Force officer or that instead of punishing their perpetrators, the Air Force would instead punish those who filed complaints.

While no one has established that a mass cover-up of sexual misconduct has occurred, the glaring discrepancy between the number of alleged sexual assaults reported and the relatively few disciplinary actions for such offenses is chilling. According to the Denver Post, only one cadet ever has faced court-martial for sexually assaulting another cadet. The cadet was acquitted. Eight male cadets accused of sexual misconduct have been expelled since 1996 and another five cases are pending.

The Air Force clearly needed to replace the existing leaders at the academy because they cannot lead effectively with this scandal under investigation, regardless of their involvement — or lack thereof.

The other reforms underway should go a long way to restore dignity and honor to the venerable academy. My hope is that military officials recognize that, to the victims of these assaults, changing the rules and transferring academy brass doesn't directly address the violations they have suffered as individuals.

Only when the perpetrators of these sexual offenses are held accountable for their alleged crimes can the Air Force assure the public that a new day has dawned at the academy.

Marjorie Cortez is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail: