Academy Scandal Exposes Air Force’s Continuing Struggle With Sexual Assault

On her official webpage, US Air Force Academy (USAFA) Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson presents a list of seven books she suggests as professional reading. The list omits but should arguably include Shakespeare’s Hamlet, since something is most certainly rotten in the state of Denmark.

If recent reporting is even fractionally accurate, USAFA is still festering with corruption nearly 15 years after it was first mired in scandal for failing to provide a safe environment for cadets. At the root of its newly revisited troubles is the same old issue: how it responds when cadets complain of sexual assault.

In a series of articles for the Colorado Springs Independent, Pam Zubeck has chronicled a confluence of shady developments at USAFA, each tied to the school’s response mechanisms when sexual assault complaints are raised by cadets.

The most jarring of these developments is the recent removal from her post of Teresa Beasley, the Academy’s long-time Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC). Beasley claims she was escorted from her office on June 30 and put on administrative leave because of concerns she and her staff have been raising for three years — concerns that USAFA senior leaders are abusing their authority in forcing staffers to understate the numbers of sexual assault complaints filed by cadets. Her removal came just 10 days before inspectors arrived to conduct biennial review of the Academy’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program.

Beasley has made this and other explosive claims in an official complaint to the Inspector General and is now speaking out, asserting that USAFA has not improved its underlying culture or value system around the subject of sexual assault since the 2003 scandal that rocked the institution and resulted in the demotion of its commandant. Among her allegations: that USAFA is retaliating against cadets who lodge complaints, in many cases by tagging them with mental health diagnoses that render them ineligible for Air Force service.

Current and former cadets are reinforcing this claim. Some say their medical diagnoses have been falsified by Academy officials. Others say they’ve been diagnosed with mental illnesses without being informed by a care provider. One says his medical records were falsified a year after he left the Academy, having been disenrolled just prior to graduation after he filed a sexual assault complaint and got counseling.

There are also allegations by cadets of confidentiality violations, social media reprisal and online harassment campaigns by fellow cadets that were ignored by the chain of command, and summary resolution, without adverse action, of complaints implicating members of the Academy’s football team. One cadet alleges that USAFA officials made her feel handling of her case would hinge on whether she spoke to the media about the way she’d been treated.

This video from one of the Independent stories summarizes the currently unfolding mess, about which the Academy has offered zero useful comment.

These volatile claims out of USAFA illuminate one side of the SAPR coin, with officials subject to criticism for not reacting swiftly or appropriately in the face of credible allegations. This drives the perception that the service isn’t taking sexual assault seriously enough.

On the other side of the coin is the subject of overzealous prosecution, with innocent airmen being cuffed and led to prison cells after show trials characterized by weak evidence, prosecutorial chicanery, and unlawful command influence.

Just yesterday, we brought you the tale of MSgt. Michael Silva, whose rape conviction was set aside by an appellate court after it held Silva was only convicted because the trial judge mistakenly permitted the prosecution to violate rules of evidence designed to give defendants fairness and protect their entitlement to due process.

Last year, we told you about Maj. Michael Turpiano, whose case could be used as the centerpiece for a semester class on prosecutorial misconduct and unlawful command influence. The “evidence” used to condemn Turpiano didn’t even pretend to be accurate or credible.

It was also last year that TSgt. Aaron Allmon was thankfully granted clemency after being convicted on manifestly weak evidence from unreliable witnesses in a case where prosecutors sought a 130-year prison sentence on obviously stacked charges for what amounted to “socially maladroit” behavior.

At the root of it all is a seemingly irresistible attraction to unlawful influence, unwittingly made explicit by former Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and directly cited by an appellate court in its recent decision to overturn a conviction infected by the unacceptable meddling of Welsh, former Secretary of the Air Force Debbie James, and senior Air Force lawyers.

The common thread tying these two things together — overzealous enforcement and maltreatment of victims — is the Air Force’s warped sense of priority when it comes to public image. The service was born of propaganda and is still infected with the jaundiced notion that looking good is imperative while actually being good is secondary, and perhaps not even feasible or desirable.

This explains the service’s constant issue conflation, with officials and their policies losing critical distinctions between sexual assault, sexual harassment, and inappropriate relationships. Carpet bombing all things vaguely sexual is a show of bureaucratic force designed to bolster external confidence.

It explains the constant gimmickry and unintentional lampooning that have made many airmen recoil in horror — all for the sake of letting generals exclaim “but look what we did — it’s so visible!”

It explains the constant computer-based and classroom-driven “awareness” browbeating that has alienated airmen on all sides of the issue while disempowering women in uniform, painting them all as potential victims being constantly stalked by legions of would-be rapists. This constant drumbeat has diminished respect, dignity, and mutual support … the key ingredients in a self-sustaining culture of prevention. It was two years ago that Kayce Hagen wrote the piece below, which ignited a strong discussion across social media but was utterly ignored by the Air Force. Her words are just as relevant today.

One Airman’s View: Open Letter to the SARC

This public relations approach is having the opposite of its intended effect. It’s persuading everyone that no one can trust the Air Force because it refuses to speak authentically. USAFA’s recent woes illustrate the habit is still entrenched, with officials moving their lips but saying nothing of value.

My view is that the Air Force’s response to sexual assault hasn’t worked because it has been unprofessional. It’s been animated by political calculations rather than a genuine desire for actual success, and therefore has dealt in perception rather than tracing a plan for success complete with resources, tactics, and objectives.

These two modes are mutually exclusive, since true success will require weathering storms of political misperception and confronting politically inconvenient truths. The tools of propaganda — opacity, stonewalling, talking points, and PR manipulation wrapped in doubletalk — are roughly opposite the tools of leadership. These latter tools are needed and sorely lacking from the Air Force’s approach.

There is a way though this. It’s roughly the way other military services similarly confronted have navigated difficult issues. I’ve written about it and shared the full article below. It can be summarized by thinking about what culture change requires. It requires altering an underlying value system that has become corrupt or corroded and applying resources to ingrain a replacement value system over time. Persuading people to share and champion values is the hard work of committed leaders, and is thus mainly ignored by bureaucrats.

For the Air Force, success means committing to values of dignity, empathy, respect, mutual support, transparency, and common sense. It means professional law enforcement and zealous but ethical prosecutions untainted by political shenanigans. It means paying top dollar for capable attorneys and specialists who are talented enough that they don’t constantly yearn for official approval.

Above all, it means healthy organizations. When morale is strong, criminality is less prevalent. When officers and NCOs have the resources they need to execute the mission, they have more mental and managerial resources to spot and respond to issues before they explode into crises. When there are enough prosecutors, defense attorneys, investigators, and judges to contend with sexual assault allegations, it stands to reason each allegation will be more thoroughly and carefully assessed and fewer corners cut.

Most of all, when officers and NCOs at all levels earn and enjoy the trust of the chain of command, there is less need for command intervention and, accordingly, less susceptibility to inappropriate influence.

The Air Force has not stated a new value system. More poignantly, it has not requested the resources it needs. Until recently, it was not asking for more people and in fact was reducing its size, putting more strain on individuals and organizations. Until Gen. Dave Goldfein took the controls, the service refused to admit its squadrons needed to be revitalized.

With a change in philosophy at the top, a professional response to sexual assault is now possible. What remains to be seen is whether the service can effectively tie the issue to its urgent need for personnel and other resources. Arguing externally for resources would be a valid use of its burgeoning PR capacity … rather than continued attempts at internal social engineering.

Here’s my personal rant on how to deal with this issue. Your comments are welcome.

Manifesto: Re-Thinking the Air Force’s Failing Sexual Assault Policy Approach


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