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Air Force Academy, other military schools eye escape clause for sexual assault victims

Air Force Academy cadets pass in review after Brig. Gen. Kristin Goodwin assumed command of the AFA cadet wing at a ceremony at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., on May 15, 2017.

MARK REIS/THE GAZETTE/TNS

By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 19, 2017

The boss at the Air Force Academy must deal with problems surrounding sexual assault without a remedy that commanders at every other military base in the Colorado Springs area can use.

Victims who face ostracism at the region's four other military bases can - at their request - move to a new military home with a clean slate thousands of miles away from their alleged attackers. But at the Air Force Academy and the nation's other military schools, cadet victims have two options: Stay or quit.

Those options could be expanded soon. Aurora Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, who oversees personnel issues for the House Armed Services Committee, is examining allowing cadet sexual assault victims to transfer between academies, letting them pursue their military dreams away from their alleged attacker and away from the retaliation and ostracism that more than half of victims surveyed say they face at the academies.

"It is something that as military personnel subcommittee chairman, I will look into," Coffman said.

Colorado Springs U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, who sits on Armed Services and an Air Force Academy oversight board, agreed.

"I think it should be explored," Lamborn said. "There's possibility there."

The academy's leader, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, used the ability to allow transfers for sexual assault victims at other bases he commanded.

"I'm open to any ideas and any suggestions that would help us support victims of sexual assault," Silveria said.

The effort comes as the Air Force Academy works to rebuild its scandal-ridden Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, which was excoriated in a 560-page report released to The Gazette last month. Investigators found the office's director, Theresa Beasley, was derelict in care for victims and led an office so torn by infighting that each of its employees had a human resources complaint against one or more co-workers.

A report last week by CBS News alleged that several Air Force Academy sexual assault victims faced retaliation in ranks after making reports.

The CBS report, which relied heavily on interviews with Beasley, found in one case a woman fled the school after repeatedly facing reprisal.

Silveria disputes some of what CBS reported, but acknowledges that reprisal against sexual assault victims remains one of his top concerns.

"All retaliation against victims of sexual assault is disgusting," he said.

Leading the effort to fight reprisal is acting Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office manager Kimberly Dickman, who says she has struggled to keep cadet victims safe from their attackers and the social stigma that too often accompanies reporting one of the nation's most underreported crimes.

"It is an ongoing discussion," Dickman said.

Now, cadets who suffer sexual assault are offered a move within the academies two dorms and a new class schedule. It's like moving down the block in a small town - offering new neighbors, but not anonymity. They can also take time off from the academy before returning to school.

"For many it does help," Dickman said.

But getting a cadet a fresh start at a different academy, at least for now, is impossible. No vehicle exists for transfer between the schools and yards of red tape prevent it.

Academies are creatures of congressional legislation as much as they are part of the military. Lawmakers appoint cadets to the school of their choice, a move that ties a cadet to a school for keeps.

Laws also forbid rapid swings in class sizes at the various academies and there's no accounting practice to let them exchange money if they trade cadets.

Lamborn said other details, like matching up academic requirements between the schools, remain problematic, too.

That means cadets can stay, or quit.

Staying, though, means sticking around in an environment that can be toxic for victims of sexual assault, a Defense Department study issued this year shows.

"Female cadets and midshipmen who indicated experiencing a sexual assault in the past year and reported it to a DoD authority, 50 percent indicated perceiving some kind of retaliatory behavior consistent with ostracism and maltreatment," the study found.

At the Air Force Academy, one type of ostracism stood out: The use of anonymous social media posts "intended to target and socially exclude the victim," the report said.

While Dickman and others are working to stamp out the social media scorn felt by Air Force victims, down the road at Fort Carson, commanders can offer something different.

The post's Chief of Staff Col. Miles Brown, calls it "expedited transfer."

It's not used frequently, and only when the victim asks for it. But if you want to get away, the Army has an escape plan few employers could offer - with bases around the globe offering a new start.

It's just one of many tools used at Fort Carson to protect victims, but it gives leaders an extra option, Brown said.

"Commanders have to use their instincts to protect our soldiers," he said.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Irv Halter served as the academy's vice superintendent as the school emerged from its 2003 sexual assault scandal when dozens of women said their reported attacks were mishandled or ignored.

He used expedited transfer to assist sexual assault victims at other bases and called the practice extremely rare.

"It's not necessarily a bad idea, if they are will willing to go," he said of victims.

But before the academy starts sending cadets elsewhere to escape sexual assault woes, Halter said, the school needs to fix the office that's responsible for victim care.

Halter helped set up the office during his tenure.

"We did the right thing when we established the office and then it got run badly," Halter said. "Of all the things you don't want to fail at the school, that's the one."

Silveria is taking several steps to rebuild the office.

He's also talking to sexual assault victims about what tools could help them recover.

"I'll take any idea to get at this problem," he said.

Lamborn said if legislative changes are needed to help victims, now is the time to ask. With lawmakers, entertainers, media personalities and businessmen in the crosshairs of a tidal wave of sexual assault allegations, Congress is looking for ways to address the issue.

"I think people's awarenesses and sensitivity is better than previous times," Lamborn said. "If we can make life better for everyone at the service academy that is a good thing."

Coffman said it's also the right time to make sure cadet victims of sexual assault have the best options. Problems with transfers remain, one of which is how to allow cadets who transfer to still become officers in the service of their choice.

Another issue, raised by Lamborn, is making sure cadets who transfer aren't singled out for ostracism at their new school.

Despite the obstacles, lawmakers are willing to take a look.

Coffman has seen victims boxed in by the current system.

"They felt there was no option but to leave the academy," he said.

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©2017 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

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