Posted by: annemartinfletcher | November 17, 2011

Are We There, Yet?

A courageous former Air Force Academy (USAFA) cadet died on September 27th of 2011, during a routine surgery to replace her pacemaker. She had developed a (most-likely) stress-related heart problem after being raped as a freshman by an upperclassman, resigning, and then working to prevent the Academy from hiding a growing number of sexual assaults from 1999 to 2005. Sharon (Fullilove) Erickson’s death, as reported in the article “Albuquerque Reporter Was a Beautiful Person Inside and Out.”, combined with some archaic attitudes I encountered at USAFA during a 2010 visit and a recent interview with Gloria Steinem on the 40th anniversary of MS. Magazine (current issue features an article on “Women in Combat”), made me ponder whether a series of sexual assaults could happen at USAFA again. My conclusion is that conditions for women and other marginalized groups at the Academy is precariously balanced possible deterioration and true acceptance.

Sexual assault is a symptom of a group being marginalized. Studies reveal that sexual assault is a crime related to power and control over the victim. An atmosphere that condones such power or control over any subgroup, increases the possibility of sexual assault. Sexual assault is not limited to female victims; Reichen Lehmkuhl describes how he was sexually assaulted in the AFA dormitory in 1993. A male classmate of mine raped another male classmate during pilot training, after graduation. Prisoners of War are sometimes raped. The Abu Ghraib offenses were a form of sexual assault. Cultural marginalization of rape victims and subgroups, either at the Academy or in the military, creates an atmosphere that make rape more likely to occur.

Unfortunately, there are indications that the marginalization of women continues, as recently as 2010, both at USAFA and in the military at large (and perhaps in Americans as a whole, but that’s for someone else to blog about). Worse, the women themselves do not recognize some of the symptoms of marginalization. When I visited USAFA in 2010, it shocked me to hear that cadets got away with “tapping down” certain speakers by making so much noise tapping on their glasses that the speaker could not be heard. This happened much more frequently with female speakers than male speakers. The women surprised me by referring to themselves as “girls.” If male peers are referred to as “men,” if gender-specific sports teams are called the “mens” team, then any comparison with “girls” is a put-down, implying that the women are less mature and in need of protection. Eighties’ Ladies refuted attempts to call us “girls,” even when we were doolies. I am not sure that Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould understands the implications of such subtle marginalization; these events happened during his watch and he avoided calling on female graduates during our reunion’s Q and A session. When, thanks to my own loud voice and my peers all pointing to me, the General did listen to my concern, he deferred my question to a Commandant who had only been on the job a few weeks. This action reminded me of how, when flying in Saudi Arabia in the 80’s, Saudi men would never speak to me directly. My own experiences increase my sensitivity to gender slights, but awareness is the first step to prevention.

I fear that rape victims in the military still may not be as protected from retaliation, as the assaulter is protected from prosecution. At the Academy, it used to be that if a victim had to admit to a regulation violation, such as being off campus without permission, then he or she was just as likely to be expelled as the accused rapist. An anti-victim attitude exists throughout the military. Powder tells the story of a woman Naval Air Controller who fought off an assault from a Navy SEAL, brought charges, won the case, and even her female lawyer lamented “ruining the man’s” career — as if the SEAL had no responsibility for his own career-ending crime. A recent NY Times article reports that, although sexual trauma is the leading cause of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among servicewomen, the Department of Veterans Affairs denies claims for it about 40% more often than it denies other claims for PTSD. In an atmosphere where women themselves accept subtle insults, leadership does not recognize marginalization, rape victims are more likely to be socially isolated than their aggressors, and rape is not considered to be a significant trauma, then the possibility of sexual assault increases.

Of course, that does not guarantee that attacks will happen. What is the catalyst for rape? USAFA graduate Dr. Jamie Callahan, Phd., currently an associate professor at Texas A&M University, theorizes that training which reduces an individual’s sense of personal control, while socializing cadets into a culture that reinforces aggression, leads to destructive manifestations of power and control — including sexual assault. In contrast, during my time at USAFA, Lt. Gen. James R. Allen enforced a policy to make training more realistic in terms of what can be used in the operational Air Force. Perhaps because of that, I think I developed a higher sense of personal power and control than I had before I became a cadet. Projecting a sense of personal power helps safeguard a person from assault. Today’s training might not be developing the same characteristic; I am not positioned to know. Training policies change with Superintendents and Academy Boards of Visitors; the training techniques used now may be quite different from those of the late 1970’s. Finally, a lack of adult supervision facilitates midnight expeditions, and possibly assaults. When I attended, officers, not just cadets, patrolled the hallways at night, reducing the opportunity for inappropriate behavior. Current training policies and nighttime supervision will influence whether a series of assaults is possible.

Right now, I think the Air Force Academy is poised to make real progress toward embracing previously marginalized subgroups. According to my sources (a few sons and daughters of other graduates), the practice of disrespecting cadet speakers, male or female, is dying out. Female cadets I talk to, say they feel safe. I understand the tightrope women cadets walk between “fitting in with the guys” and being a minority subgroup, but I hope they will unite to protect each other. Lt. Gen. Gould appointed female cadets as Wing Commanders, both last year and this year—certainly not a “marginalized” job. In fact, the most important trend in embracing the value of  servicewomen comes from combat commanders. Commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken note of how effective women can be in the role of “peacekeepers.” The Washington Post reports that the Army is training an elite group of women to operate alongside Special Forces units during raids, to gather intelligence from women villagers. The Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command created Cultural Support Teams (CST) that deployed a year ago. Commanders in Afghanistan requested more CSTs. The group of women profiled in the Post is in the first formal assessment course for CST positions.

In the end, despite discouraging indicators that sexual assault and marginalization of women cadets and servicewomen still exist, so do opportunities for female Air Force Academy cadets. Given the chance to become decades younger, would I still enroll at USAFA? You bet. Somewhere out there a special operations pilot slot is waiting for my alter ego. You go, lady!


  1. Great post, Anne. Thank you for all you are doing. BT

  2. Wow, Anne. Heavy stuff!

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