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Former Air Force Cadet Airs Charges of Rapes, Official Cover-Ups to Congressional Committee

A military jury acquitted a U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadet of rape on June 27, but found him guilty on several other charges, including extorting sexual favors from a female cadet. It was the first court-martial in the 130-year history of the Coast Guard Academy, and may signal change in how charges of rape and sexual assault are handled in the armed services. The same day, Congressman Christopher Shays held a subcommittee hearing on the subject of sexual assault in the military, particularly at the academies that prepare young men and women for service in the Coast Guard, Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines.

Congressman Shays said he and other members questioned the commitment of the Department of Defense to respond aggressively to the problem. The hearing centered on the testimony of one young woman, Elizabeth Davis, a former cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. Now 25, Davis told the subcommittee, “I was raped and assaulted repeatedly my freshman year by a superior cadet in my squadron. In earlier sexual assault briefings during my training,” she testified, “upper-class women cadets informed us that it was very likely that we would be raped or sexually assaulted during our time at the academy, and they instructed us that if we were attacked, to not report it to authorities because it would effectively destroy our career."

Davis says when she finally reported the rapes, she was branded mentally ill by an academy psychologist who told her he had been ordered to do so by an academy commander. She was then charged with serious infractions and forced to resign.

“To my shock and dismay, the demerits were for ‘sex in the dorms,’ because my rapes took place in the dormitory,” she testified, “‘fraternization,’ because my rapist was an upperclassman, and ‘alcohol’ because I had included in my charges that my perpetrator had been buying alcohol for my underage peers. As my world and everything I believed in crumbled before me, I realized I was being castigated and thrown out of the academy for reporting the heinous crimes that had been committed against me."

Several top Air Force Academy officials retired or were reassigned after accusations by Davis and several other female cadets became public in 2003. But none of the military officials has been disciplined for Davis's treatment. Congressman Shays and several committee members expressed outrage. “The testimony I've heard today,” Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney told the hearing room, “is that if you're raped, you're thrown out of the military with charges against you so you cannot get a job in the military or government again. Yet if you're the rapist, you just might get a promotion. Or if you're discharged, you're quietly discharged."

Congressman Shays said, “You basically had brutality take place, testimony that all the women were told, ‘you will be raped and you must deal with it.’ And then you have testimony that the people who raped are alive and well in our military, prospering."

During a break in the hearing, the Air Force Academy's current commandant, Brigadier General Susan Desjardins, said that Davis’s experience was very regrettable, but that changes have been made. “She was there in 1999 and experienced these incidents through 2001,” Desjardins told a reporter. “And 2003 is when this came to light, and with crisis -- which this certainly was for the Air Force Academy, and really for the Air Force, and ultimately the Department of Defense -- we found an opportunity. And we’ve taken the recommendations from various task forces, and we’ve made a series of changes. And we are cautiously optimistic that those changes are taking hold. But a testimony like this keeps the light -- the focus -- on the fact that we're not through."

Vice Admiral Rodney P. Rempt, superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, said his institution is changing, too. “I can tell you this, I'm the one personally accountable for anything that goes on at the Naval Academy,” he said, “and I take that very seriously, especially with regard to sexual harassment and misconduct and assault. It is my goal to ensure that every single midshipman knows what we expect of them and to hold them to that high level of performance. as well as my faculty and staff."

But Elizabeth Davis said that a “rape culture” still exists in the service academies -- and that most of her former female classmates later told her that they, too, had been assaulted. When Congressman David Price asked Davis, “Would you feel comfortable recommending to a young woman that she pursue education at a service academy?" her answer was emphatic. "Absolutely not,” she said, “We're still hearing cases of women coming out of the academies absolutely distraught, having been through the exact same thing that I went through. It's really a shame. It's such an injustice.”

Congressman Shays said that the hearing has caused him to add additional hearings to the subcommittee’s schedule, to include the testimony of many other women who have charged they were sexually assaulted while students at the military academies.