AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. - As Air Force cadets return to classes this month, they are seeing a new system for handling rape allegations - reforms put in place throughout the military in response to the sex scandal that rocked this prestigious school more than two years ago.
The Defense Department is adding sexual assault response coordinators at every major base around the world. Bases also will have at least one victim's advocate, most of them civilians.
In another groundbreaking move, all 1.5 million active duty military personnel will have the option of reporting a sexual assault and having their identity shielded from commanders. Base commanders will be told there has been an incident but given no information about the alleged victim.
Roger Kaplan, spokesman for the Pentagon's Joint Task Force on Sexual Assault, said training began in June and more than 2,300 response coordinators and victim's advocates have been prepped for handling assault cases.
Observers call the changes - part of a series of reforms enacted since the academy scandal erupted - a significant milestone for the military.
"I liken it in importance to the establishment of equal opportunity offices on bases," said Terri Spahr Nelson, an Army veteran and therapist who has written about assault in the military. "How long it is going to take people to get the word, I don't know."
Anita Sanchez, spokeswoman for the Miles Foundation advocacy group for victims of military violence, said she has reservations.
"It looks great on paper but it needs to be based on a foundation of law and procedure, not just a policy directive, to guarantee that victims get the support and protection they need," she said.
The scandal here broke in January 2003 when female cadets said they were being punished for minor infractions like drinking alcohol when they came forward to report sexual assaults. Some cadets went to a local rape crisis clinic, saying they feared their military careers would be damaged if they spoke with a commanding officer. Investigators later determined there were 142 reports of sexual assault at the academy between 1993 and 2003.
An investigation by the Defense Department's inspector general said top academy commanders had failed to recognize the severity of the problem. The Air Force brought in new leadership and began researching ways to prevent another scandal.
The Pentagon said Thursday that hostile attitudes and inappropriate treatment of women are still a problem at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. A task force report called training on sexual harassment and assault issues inadequate, resulting in misunderstandings about how to obtain medical care, counseling and legal assistance.
Col. Debra Gray, a 1980 alumna of the academy's first coed class, was sent to the school in 2003 with orders to find out what was wrong and fix it. She said she and other leaders had to be educated on the impact of sexual assault.
"I went from zero to 100,000 feet in a very short period of time in learning about sexual assault," said Gray, the school's vice commandant. "The more I learned about it the more I understood that a lot people are not going to come forward and talk about something that is personal unless you give them the avenue of confidentiality."
Only about a third of sexual assault victims report the attacks, according to national surveys. Gray said she has explained to the academy's civilian oversight panel that most rapes involve someone known to the victim - which makes it even harder to report. In some cases, underage drinking or other rules violations are involved, complicating cases.
Since Gray took over, the number of female cadets indicating they were sexually assaulted during their time at the academy declined from 109 women to 79 women, according to a 2003-04 survey by the Defense Department's inspector general. Overall, the military said 1,700 sexual assaults were reported last year, up from 1,012 in 2003. Officials have attributed the increase to heightened awareness about sexual assault issues.
Kaplan said that between June 14, when the new confidentiality policy took effect, and July 31, a total of 40 people made confidential reports of assaults; seven later decided to go public and pursue prosecution of their assailant.
Gray is the response coordinator for the academy until a civilian takes over the job. When victims call, she said she plans to "draw a bubble around" them until they have had time to regain control of their lives.