The day before she enrolled at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Mryamn Ruth wrote an entry in her new journal, a gift from a friend.
In neat block letters, the former high school valedictorian and martial arts expert (she holds a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do) listed the reasons she had chosen the academy over other institutions of higher education: 1) Love of country; 2) Drive to service; 3) Great education; 4) It's a challenge; 5) Astronautical engineering.
"No matter what happens," Mryamn (pronounced Miriam) added in a note below, "I'm walking across that stage in four years with an astronautical engineering degree."
The slender, self-assured 18-year-old from Oklahoma City is beginning her career at USAFA at a time of radical change, prompted by a sexual assault scandal that hit the academy like a sledgehammer.
|Hoping to undo the damage done by the 2003 sexual assault scandal, the Air Force Academy has adopted new rules and procedures.
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
In the spring of 2003, the public learned that dozens of women had alleged that they had been sexually assaulted or raped while enrolled at the academy over the past decade; many of them said their claims had been ignored or mishandled. The scandal led to the replacement of USAFA's top officials and an overhaul of many of its policies. It also made headlines in national publications ranging from the New York Times to Vanity Fair (which titled its piece, "Code of Dishonor").
The academy suffered another black eye last spring, when dozens of freshman cadets were suspected of cheating on a basic exam. Nineteen cadets were subsequently found to have violated the honor code: seven others resigned.
Despite the publicity, a record 249 women entered the academy along with Mryamn; they make up 19 percent of the class of 2008. Mryamn, who wants to be the first woman on Mars, didn't even apply anywhere else. She is putting her faith in herself and in the new USAFA leadership, which has begun a remarkable effort to transform the academy into a safer and more effective school.
"This is the only place I wanted to be. It's been a lifetime dream for me," Mryamn said in early August, shortly after completing five grueling weeks of basic training, and the day before she was officially accepted into the cadet wing during an elaborate outdoor ceremony that included a marching parade and a flyover by a fighter jet. "I could have gone to an Ivy League School, but it's not the same."
Not the same, indeed. As a USAFA cadet, she is a member of the armed services. So, except on rare occasions, she must wear a uniform on campus. She must snap to attention when an officer enters her dormitory area or classroom, salute when an officer passes her outside, and address all those who outrank her as "sir" or "ma'am." Her room must be neat and orderly, her bed made to specifications, and her clothes neatly folded in the drawer beneath it, laid out according to a diagram provided her. She can't display more than two pieces of personal memorabilia, like photographs, or use non-issue bedding until her second year; can't have a plant or a coffeepot until her third year; can't have a television until her last year.
Several times a week, she must march to lunch in formation. Attending classes and extracurricular activities is a military duty; skipping them could lead to disciplinary action. As a freshman, known as a "four-degree" or "fourth-classman," she is expected to memorize academy trivia and Air Force regulations, and other information that she can recite on demand. At football games, she has to do "motivational" push-ups whenever the Air Force team scores.
Throughout her academy career, she must respect strict curfews. The door to her room must remain open if a male is with her. She may never engage in public displays of affection on campus or when in uniform, nor may she engage in sexual relations on campus.
|Lt. Colonel Chris Luedtke is deputy director of the team that makes sure sexual assault and harassment allegations are investigated.
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
In exchange, she receives a tuition-free education at one of the nation's top colleges (The Princeton Review recently rated the academy 18th for overall undergraduate academic experience), and a monthly stipend of nearly $800. Upon graduating, she will be commissioned as a second lieutenant, at which time she must serve at least five years in the Air Force.
If the new leadership is successful, she will earn her degree from a much-reformed academy, one that not only does a better job of protecting its female students, but ensures that all of its cadets are treated more professionally than in the past. It will be an institution that demands the highest standards of integrity, rather than reflecting what leadership has come to believe is society's lack of it.
That will not be an easy task, but it is imperative, said Brigadier General Johnny Weida, who in April 2003 was appointed commandant of cadets and acting superintendent (he has since relinquished the latter post). Immediately, Weida set about implementing sweeping changes called for by Air Force Secretary James Roche. Laid out in a March 2003 document called "Agenda for Change," those new policies cover virtually every aspect of cadet life: from how women are housed at the academy, to how cadets are disciplined, to how reports of sexual assaults are handled.
"It's extremely important that we get this right," said Weida. The United States Air Force wields lethal instruments of national power, and its officers, Weida said, "can do great harm, because they've been given great responsibility and are asked to do things in far-flung places where there's very little supervision."
So, what happens at the academy, which graduates 20 percent of all Air Force officers, has implications that extend well beyond its secluded 18,000-acre campus at the base of the Rocky Mountains.
Weida arrived at the academy to find the cadets reeling in the wake of the scandal, focused on what they quietly referred to amongst themselves as "Operation Graduation," and little else. "We were just counting the days," said Priscilla Giddings, 21, of Riggins, Idaho, a biology major and competitive power lifter who wants to train to be a pilot after she graduates in June.
"I almost cried the first time I came back (in April 2003)," said Colonel Debra Gray, vice commandant of cadets. A graduate of the academy's class of 1980, the first class to admit women, Gray had served in the administration twice before. But never had she seen the cadets like this. "They were dejected, they were demoralized. And I was so sad. It broke my heart."
Female cadets are fond of saying that they think of their male classmates as "brothers," and all eight who were interviewed for this article insisted they feel safe and always have. Male cadets were distressed to find themselves thought of as rapists.
To add insult to injury, many cadets were dismayed to have learned about the allegations from the media rather than from USAFA leaders. "All of us were surprised," said cadet Christine Knieff, 20, a political science major from Brookings, South Dakota, who is in her third year at the academy. "We were caught in the middle of a storm." And, she added, "It was frustrating, because I felt the media was attacking us."
|"This is the only place I wanted to be," says first-year cadet Mryamn Ruth. "It's been a lifetime dream for me."
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
Some cadets-especially females-downplay the legitimacy of the sexual assault allegations. "No" should mean "no," but some of the girls involved were "a little sketchy," said Jessa Liegl, 21, a senior (or "first-degree") from Lincoln, Nebraska, echoing a common theme voiced by female cadets and their parents.
"These things happen on all college campuses," said Kim Dalrymple, of O'Fallon, Illinois, who is thrilled that her daughter, Diana, is one of five members of her high school class to enroll at USAFA this year. "They want to be with people as patriotic, motivated and as concerned about life as they are," said Dalrymple, a retired Air Force colonel who came to the academy in early August to watch her daughter in the Acceptance Parade. "I know that the officials here will take care of everything. I don't fear for my daughter at all."
Mryamn's father, retired Air Force Lt. Col. John Ruth, also attended the parade. At Mryamn's request, he had made the journey from Oklahoma City so that he could pin on her newly earned epaulets, or "shoulder boards." He was so proud, he said, that he was nearly in tears. He is not worried that his daughter could be sexually assaulted, because he trusts Mryamn to make good choices. "Each one of those girls put themselves in that situation," said Ruth, adding, "I think it's overblown by the media."
But there is no such equivocating or denial by the USAFA leadership.
"Sometimes it takes a crisis to address an issue," said Commandant Weida. "Every challenge is an opportunity to make your organization better, and that's the approach we're taking. We're not hiding from it. We're admitting it, and we're going to make it better, if it can be made better by human effort."
Between 1993 and 2002, 142 cadets (including three males) alleged that they were sexually assaulted or raped, according to an internal Air Force general counsel's report released in June 2003. Nearly two-thirds of those allegations involved cases in which both the victim and perpetrator were cadets, according to the report, but only 61 cases were investigated. The actual number of sexual assaults may be much higher: According to a May 2003 survey of female cadets conducted by the Department of Defense Inspector General, 80 percent of those who said they had been victims of a sexual assault did not report it.
An independent commission chaired by former U.S. Congresswoman Tillie Fowler subsequently blasted the academy and the Air Force leadership for failing to respond aggressively to the charges, and blamed what the commission called "a chasm of leadership," and "an atmosphere that helped foster a breakdown in values which led to the pervasiveness of sexual assaults."
When Weida set out to examine and define the issues the school faced, he was disturbed by what he learned. "The problem was described as a sexual assault issue," he said. "But what we found was that it was really broader and deeper than that. And it's not just at the Air Force Academy."
The sexual assaults, USAFA officials have come to believe, were symptomatic of far more deep-seated and insidious problems that have their roots outside the academy, but which festered inside its gates. Alcohol was often involved in the incidents. Officials also believe a general decline in societal values and integrity is partly to blame.
"We looked under the rock of sexual assault, and there was a rattlesnake," said Lt. Col. Chris Luedtke, deputy director of the Academy Response Team, which was created to ensure that allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment are properly handled and investigated.
In a "commandant's guidance" memo distributed to all the cadets and officer squadron commanders in September 2003, Weida wrote: "If we are to right the course and put this institution back on an honorable footing, we must embrace the problems and seize the opportunity to do what's right. We must recognize we have an environment that incubates sexual harassment until it festers into sexual assault. We must recognize we have an environment that sometimes marginalizes the achievements of our teammates based on their gender. We must recognize we have an environment that...tolerates the unlawful and inappropriate use of alcohol...tolerates violations of cadet wing standards...tolerates cynicism."
That environment was fomented by an institutionalized system that pitted the upperclassmen against the freshmen.
"The system got off the tracks," said Lt. General John Rosa Jr., who was appointed USAFA superintendent in July 2003. "Young people did not respect each other. They used power, control, influence."
"As an underclassman, you couldn't do anything that was right," recalled cadet Priscilla Giddings. "Then once you were an upperclassman, you had all this freedom."
And that freedom was in turn used to intimidate the new four-degrees, whose lowly status was reinforced by their other, informally used names: "doulies," derived from the Greek word doulos, or slave, and "SMACKs," an acronym for "Soldiers, Minus Aptitude, Character and Knowledge."
Upperclassmen often imposed physical punishments for the smallest infractions. As a four-degree, Priscilla once had to do 50 push-ups because she had used an acronym, which is forbidden.
The threat of such "spot corrections" caused her and her classmates to hide from the upperclassmen. "Fourth-classmen would be scared to walk into the hallway. They would be scared to go to the bathroom," said Priscilla.
"They would be doing push-ups morning, noon and night," recalled Major James Rickman, chief of standardization, evaluation and policy, and a former squadron leader. The idea, he said, was "to put as much stress as they could on fourth-classmen."
|Under the old academy rules, cadet Priscilla Giddings once had to do 50 push-ups for using a forbidden acronym.
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
The new leadership concluded that that was not an effective way to train good leaders.
"If you're abusive and disrespectful when you train, then that's what you'll get," said Rosa.
The administration also handed out physical punishments as part of the cadet disciplinary system: Cadets who violated rules could be forced to march in circles, carrying a training rifle, for hours at a time. "We were teaching these cadets the wrong things, things they wouldn't use after graduation," said former squadron leader Rickman.
The new policies have been designed to make the academy more like the operational Air Force. The cadet disciplinary system, which relied on demerits and physical punishment, has been replaced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which also governs the Air Force, and which relies on counseling, admonitions and reprimands (and in extreme cases, legal action). Upper-class cadets still are responsible for helping to train the four-degrees, but they no longer impose physical punishments, and they no longer lead the dreaded afternoon training sessions that were known as "beat-downs," which involved prodigious amounts of sit-ups and push-ups and long "rifle runs." Instead, four-degrees have "personal excellence time" to work out on their own.
Even basic training has been modified to reflect the new emphasis on professionalism; there are now limits on the physical feats the upper-class trainers can demand, and a lot less yelling. Gone are the days of 2,005 push-ups, something Priscilla Giddings and her squadron once had to perform.
And a "four-class" system that emphasizes different aspects of leadership training throughout a cadet's career has replaced the "fourth-class" system that was almost exclusively focused on getting the four-degrees to toe the line. In addition, the academy significantly stepped up the number of cadet briefings it holds to address sexual assault and harassment, race, alcohol, and character development. And each of the 36 squadron leaders, known as Air Officers Commanding, or AOCs, must have a master's degree in counseling.
"Initially, everyone's impression was that it was a touchy-feely thing," said AOC Major Joseph Richardson, who already had a master's degree in aeronautical science before he volunteered for his academy assignment. But he has come to appreciate the value of his newly earned graduate degree in counseling and leadership. "The more tools you have in your tool bag, the more equipped you will be to inspire, motivate and lead," he said.
Cadets say that the new emphasis on civility and professionalism has already improved both behavior and morale. Even though the sexual assault and harassment briefings mostly cover common-sense items, "You definitely watch the jokes you tell now," said Eli Supper, 24, of Santa Barbara, California, now in his third year at the academy. "You're more self-conscious now."
|"The system got off the tracks," says Academy Superintendent Lt. General John Rosa Jr. "Young people did not respect each other."
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
Fourth-classmen "will always be fourth-classmen," but "I respect their right to live now," said cadet Justin Hinrichs, 23, of Bloomington, Minnesota. "It was really hard at first to adjust. But it's made us a better academy."
But USAFA officials say true culture change will be years in the making. "We've come a long way, but we still have miles to travel in this journey," said Weida, the academy commandant.
In the academy's most recent annual survey of cadets, conducted in August, 54 percent of respondents said that sexually explicit comments are made occasionally to frequently. That number is down from 86 percent a year ago, but still too high, according to USAFA officials. In addition, fewer cadets-19 percent as compared to 31 percent a year ago-reported witnessing sexual harassment. But underage drinking remains a problem: 43 to 58 percent of underage cadets in the upper three classes reported drinking in the past year.
And while more than 85 percent of the classes of 2007 and 2008 said they supported efforts to change the culture at the academy, less than 80 percent of the classes of 2005 and 2006 did.
"A lot of upperclassmen will tell you we have gone soft," said Major Rickman. Similar concerns have been expressed by academy graduates. To counter some of the criticism, the academy hosted 200-plus alumni at a leadership conference in August designed to educate them about the changes.
The academy has also come under fire from victim advocates for the way it is handling sexual assault allegations. The new policies require that every allegation be reported through the chain of command and investigated by law enforcement.
Victim advocates say the threat of losing anonymity could deter victims from seeking help. But the Air Force can not afford to focus exclusively on the victim at the expense of the institution, said Colonel Gray, who oversees sexual assault allegations. Nearly 85 percent of sexual assaults are committed by non-strangers, and the Air Force Academy cannot allow a sexual predator to remain in its midst and go on to the operational Air Force, she said. "We cannot have those kind of people in our military."
But she acknowledged that hers is a difficult task. "The odds we're up against are astronomical," she said, since most sexual assault victims are unwilling to come forward. (According to the cadet survey, 33 percent of female cadets said they would report a sexual assault. That is up from 22 percent last year, and twice as high as the national average, still, many cadets indicated that they would not report a sexual assault for fear of self-incrimination or ostracism.)
Thirty incidents of sexual assault and harassment have been reported since April 2003, but it is unclear whether that is good news or bad. Even though it is counterintuitive, "You know you're successful if your reporting goes up," Gray said. "If the reporting goes to zero, we know we have a problem."
In the meantime, as part of its "A to Z scrub," as Weida described it, leadership is reviewing proposals that would change how the honor code is taught and implemented.
And USAFA officials are developing an ongoing assessment to track academy graduates who are serving in the Air Force, so that the academy can see what kind of officers it is producing. There have been indications that USAFA graduates in the Air Force misbehave more than their counterparts, said Superintendent Rosa.
"Are the taxpayers getting their money's worth from the Air Force Academy? I don't think you can answer that question with facts right now," said Weida. "Systematically, we ought to do a better job of answering that question."
Finally, USAFA officials are trying to figure out how to prevent trouble before it starts, by more careful screening of applicants. "If we bring in an 18-year-old who doesn't have a moral compass, you're fooled into thinking you can give them one," said Weida.
One thing Weida promises will not happen at the United States Air Force Academy: "We won't change our standards. If we change our standards, lower our standards, then you might as well close the place."