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.
A few days later, according to Ruth, some of the school's medical staff met with them and advised them to take birth control pills. The staff didn't directly link the assaults and the recommendation for birth control, but, Ruth said, that was the message she and her classmates got.
Ruth shrugged off the advice, but during her freshman year, it happened to her. She said she was raped by a class leader when she went to his room to watch a movie. He offered her an alcoholic drink, and soon, she says, the room was spinning. Later, she was feeling internal pain. She went to a doctor, who, she says, confirmed she had been raped.
Ruth didn't report the incident. She said she felt she was in a place "where the rules are different."
Beth, another cadet, had a similar story. She said an upperclassman essentially blackmailed her into seeing him — threatening to report her and her squadron mates for alcohol use if she didn't. So she agreed to meet the upperclassman one night outside the dorm. Beth said he shoved her to the ground, forced her head into his waist "and pretty much made me do things that I didn't want to do. And then left me there."
Beth also kept quiet about the assault. What's more, she said she agreed to see him over and over again, feeling powerless to refuse an upperclassman.
Zero Tolerance — for the Victim?
It was a year before Beth spoke about the incident to her parents back home in Maryland. They encouraged her to report it, and she did.
Beth reported the crime to the Office of Special Investigations. She said the commander listening to her story was supportive, becoming upset, even crying as he listened. Beth said, "He started calling him [the upperclassman] an S.O.B. And he was like, if I do anything in my career, I'm going to bring this case down. And he said it's going to court, I can guarantee you."
The case never went to court. And, incredibly, the academy punished Beth, giving her a "hit," or a reprimand, for having sex in the dorm.
Another female cadet who reported an assault suffered a similar punishment. Marie, who asked that her last name be withheld, said she received "hits" for alcohol, fraternization and for sexual activity. "The hit for sexual activity is ridiculous," she said, "when you're reporting a rape."
Gen. John Dallager, superintendent of the Air Force Academy, told ABCNEWS' Lynn Sherr that the academy's policy encourages victims to report rape and sexual assaults on a cadet-run hotline called CASIE.
Since 1996, there have been 99 reports of sexual assaults or rapes through the CASIE hot line. There have been 20 investigations of sex crimes by the Office of Special Investigations. Only one case went to a court-martial, and that case ended in acquittal.
The academy's actions in Marie's case so outraged her advocate, a man who worked at the cadet-run rape hotline, that he resigned in protest.
Another cadet who reported a rape to the Office of Special Investigations, Lyn, told Sherr the officer who heard her report scolded her. "He just berated me and basically told me I was a promiscuous slut."
"The Air Force Academy claims to have a zero-toleration policy. But it's really zero tolerance for victims," Lyn told Sherr.
Investigations Under Way
Dallager told Sherr he believes the reports he's hearing about the women's allegations, but, he says he's not sure that there's much the Air Force can do for them at this point.
"I'm not sure we can adequately apologize to them, and I would say, we will never make it right for them. Hopefully, the public approach that we're taking to this, the senior-level investigation into this will improve it in the future," Dallager told Sherr.
Some action also is being taken outside of the academy. The top general in the Air Force, Gen. John P. Jumper, on Wednesday endorsed Congress' call for an independent inquiry into the allegations.