Bring Me Women

At least Pfc. Jessica Lynch got her wounds on the battlefront. Back on the home front, Air Force Academy women have been taking friendly fire. Rape, it seems, is the price of graduation. To many civilians, that news from the Air Force Academy sounds like déjà vu all over again. Didn't the military -- the nation's largest employer of women -- get the message after Adm. Frank Kelso lost his career over the gang grope at the Navy's 1991 Tailhook convention? Or after the press revealed in 1996 that Army drill sergeants were regularly raping trainees at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds?

Apparently not. According to press reports, from 1996- 2002 the Air Force Academy's hot line has logged 96 reports of sexual assault -- resulting in the expulsion (not prosecution, not jail time) of just eight men. Cardinal Law would be proud. One woman, after a senior cadet ordered her into his room and raped her, was punished for having sex in the dorms. Rape victims driven out by psych diagnoses have been billed for their educations. The Academy's cadet-run justice system all but guaranteed that squealing on your rapist goes on your permanent record. Female cadets told their sisters to expect rape and, if they wanted an Air Force career, to keep their mouths shut about it. Can't the Defense Department understand that college t-shirt staple, "No Means No"?

But this isn't, in fact, a three-peat: The Air Force Academy's microculture had been passed over by previous storms. Before this, the Air Force had escaped congressional and media fury over sexual violence -- unlike the Navy and Army, which learned to investigate and treat rape as a crime. If those two services hadn't improved, we'd have heard about it by now. The 1994 Tailhook hearings brought out women's complaints from every branch of the military. But this time the Air Force Academy is suffering alone.

That's in part because American attitudes have changed dramatically since 1991. A generation of women has proven it can fix jeeps, pilot planes, wash floors, record radar transmissions, cook breakfast and handle all the other tasks of warfare. Today, more than one in seven American military personnel is female. Conservative military men who once scorned a sex-integrated military have proudly watched their daughters and granddaughters take up the family tradition -- turning Dad and Granddad into fierce women's advocates. Only a decade ago, it took women in Congress three years to force hearings about Tailhook. This time a male Republican, Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado, is the public voice of outrage (with Sen. John McCain of Arizona close behind) against the secretary of the Air Force -- even with a war on.

Apparently it's no surprise that sexual violence has been coddled in the prestigious Air Force Academy. Run by alumni, the service academies "are the most political and sacrosanct of all the service institutions," explains Carolyn Becraft, former Navy assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs. Outsiders' opinions are not welcomed. Junior and senior cadets have near-total power over their younger classmates. In Colorado Springs, Colo., the Air Force Academy is more than half a continent away from Washington's scrutiny. Until a month ago, Air Force Academy cadets were still leered at by the now-infamous 2-foot-tall sign that read, "Bring Me Men," and had to grin and bear it when visiting Academy alumni wore caps reading "LCWB" (Last Class With Balls).

And that was the problem: tacit official encouragement for men to harass women. The Tailhook and Aberdeen investigative commissions stressed that fiddling with rape-response procedures wouldn't end sexual violence; the Army and Navy had to stop treating women as interlopers. Becraft notes that the Tailhook scandal came when the Navy first authorized women to be fighter pilots -- but before women were accepted in the ranks. Sexual violence and its cover-up are just sexism by other means.

Which is not to say the Army and Navy are now perfect. "What all the women in the service need ..." says former Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), "is a statement from the very top. A president has yet to say, 'Women are full members of the military team, and if you can't treat them that way, get out.'" Can congressional Republicans coax such a blast out of our commander in chief -- or is he too afraid of his radical-right base?

The military has the last jobs segregated by law. And, like it or not, those can be springboards for some very powerful careers. "Jessica Lynch fought back ... that [is] a tremendous symbol ... to most people," says Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. "If you can do that, you can be president."