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Air Force Refers Academy’s Alleged Sexual Assault Cases to Pentagon

By Bradley Graham

The Air Force has combed through 54 cases of alleged rape or sexual assault at the Air Force Academy that have been investigated over the past decade and has identified about a dozen that it intends to refer to Pentagon investigators, the service’s civilian leader said Thursday.

Testifying before a Senate panel about the burgeoning sexual misconduct scandal, Air Force Secretary James Roche acknowledged that many other cases may have occurred but were never reported. He promised changes in how the academy has managed sexual complaints in the past so that victims will feel freer to come forward.

“Whatever we see, whatever the number is -- 25, 50 -- there are probably a hundred more that we do not see,” Roche told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In the past month, a sudden surge in complaints by former and current cadets, alleging they were sexually assaulted at the academy and then faced indifference or even retaliation after reporting the attacks, has embarrassed the Air Force leadership and threatens to become the latest in a series of sexual misconduct debacles that have shaken the U.S. military over the past decade.

Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., a committee member and one of several in Congress who have pressed the Pentagon for a more aggressive inquiry, said “a total system breakdown” had made the situation at the academy graver than the 1991 Tailhook scandal, in which more than 80 women complained they were groped or assaulted by drunken pilots at a convention. That episode cost the careers of the Navy secretary and several admirals, who were accused of mishandling it.

In the case of the Air Force cadets, Allard said, “the entire support and legal system at the academy appears to have failed. We really do need to instill confidence in the system so victims know when they report rape, they know the rape itself will not jeopardize their career.”

Mindful of Tailhook’s lessons, Roche and other senior Air Force officials have pledged a thorough and swift inquiry. A team of Air Force investigators was dispatched to the academy last month.

So far, Air Force authorities have resisted calls from some in Congress for the removal of the academy’s top commanders.

“We believe this regrettable situation has resulted from a climate at the academy that has evolved over time,” Roche’s spokesman, Lt. Col. Chester Curtis, said Thursday. “We will not make a scapegoat of anyone ... but will ensure justice is served on all levels.”

But Roche vowed changes at least in the academy’s management processes by June. “We’re learning enough to realize that change must occur -- change in the climate, change in how we manage” the academy, the secretary said.