The U.S. Air Force Academy is an institution that prides itself on its fabled "Code of Honor," but it's now at the center of what's shaping up to be the biggest military sex scandal since the 1991 Tailhook scandal.
The academy's polished veneer began to crack in January when a cadet named Jessica sent an e-mail to news organizations. In it, she wrote: "I'm a senior at the Air Force Academy, and since I've been here I know of many females who have been sexually assaulted, including myself … Is there anything that can be done? Can your office help us somehow?"
John Ferrugia and his investigative unit at ABCNEWS' Denver affiliate KMGH first reported the story on television. Jessica later told 20/20 the sordid details of the incident.
Jessica said she was assaulted during the summer preceding her sophomore year, at the end of an intense week of training, while the cadets were camped out. She was 19. Her alleged attacker was an upper classman, one of her trainers.
According to Jessica, the upperclassman woke her in the middle of the night and asked her to follow him down a dark road and into a tent. "The next thing I know," Jessica said, "he's touching me … From there, you know, I'm pinned down on a picnic table and it was surreal — this guy is raping me."
Not a New Problem
Jessica's encounter was not an isolated incident, nor was it a new problem for the academy, located in Colorado Springs. According to the Air Force Academy's official statistics, there have been 99 reported sexual assaults or rapes over the past seven years.
Seven women, former and current cadets at the academy, agreed to speak to 20/20. They all said they had been victimized, and they said they know of many more assaults, most of which, they say, go unreported. One of the women we spoke to, Ann, who asked us not to use her last name, said she knew of roughly 20 assaults in one semester.
Whatever the tally is, it is not the first time since women were admitted to the academy in 1976 that male cadets have been accused of committing sex crimes against their female colleagues.
In 1993, when the academy reported that more than 200 female cadets — that's 40 percent of the women attending the academy — personally knew of another young woman at the academy who was a victim of a sexual assault or rape, the school instituted a series of reforms to deal with the issue. Ten years later, those reforms don't seem to have worked.
The women who spoke to 20/20 told us of their high hopes when they entered the school. They were excited to prove themselves in a man's world, and proud to be part of an institution that had nurtured their dreams and ambitions. Now, they say, they've become painfully disillusioned.
They described a culture in which upperclassmen exercise a virtual tyranny over freshman, referred to on campus as "four-degrees." The said they feared that their careers would be ruined if they reported the sexual assaults. They were taught early in basic training: protect your fellow cadets at all costs — even if it means you get hurt.
Ruth, who asked us not to give her full name, said she was astonished when, right after basic training, a senior female cadet pulled her and several of her classmates aside and told them that sexual assaults were commonplace at the academy. "She kind of sat us down and said, 'You know, I was raped twice as an underclassman. It will happen to you most likely, and you just have to accept it,' " Ruth said.