Former Citadel cadet presents her account of relentless abuse She tells of being set on fire, kicking sessions and long humiliation

February 18, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was a frightening four-month transformation that the young woman said she will never forget: from unease, as one of the Citadel's first female cadets, to fear and dread, never knowing when rough jocularity would take a brutal turn.

Seated in the living room of her parents' home in an immaculate new Charlotte subdivision, 18-year-old Jeanie Mentavlos described a slow crescendo of humiliation and physical and mental abuse of herself and another female cadet, Kim Messer, that culminated in a bizarre late-night kicking session in the room of a top-ranking cadet, the company commander.

The cadets Mentavlos accuses of wrongdoing are not named because they have not been formally charged with any crimes.

Several weeks later, another upperclassman set fire to the women's clothing using nail polish remover to accelerate the flames.

"It was bad; it was terrible," Mentavlos said. "We would argue every morning about who was going to go first, because both of us were scared just to walk to class." Two other women cadets were also enrolled at the time but have said they were not harassed.

Hazing scandals have been a recurrent feature of the Citadel's history. But this one, with its overtones of men taking advantage of the women's isolation, has been different.

Mentavlos spoke in the first interview she has given since she and Messer quit South Carolina's rigid state military college last month in a welter of publicity. Coming after the Citadel's years-long struggle to keep women out, the accusations of abuse by the two cadets have once again focused a national spotlight on this pocket of fierce resistance, long backed by the state, to the national norm of coeducation.

With a brother at the Citadel, and numerous relatives who were graduates of the institution, Mentavlos was aware of some of the more brutal practices to which knobs -- the shaved-head freshmen -- were subjected on campus.

Mentavlos said she had her first serious run-in with an upperclassman about a month into the school term. As she told it, a male cadet, unprovoked, ordered her into a small dorm room, turned off the light, slammed the door shut and shoved stiff cardboard into her chin. "He grabbed it out of my hand and punched me in my chin with it," she said. That cadet was later suspended for an unrelated incident.

Mentavlos continued: "I was crying but still bracing," or standing stiffly at attention. "He was screaming the whole time, kept ranting and raving about why he came to the Citadel. He said, 'Next time I'll show you what mean is.' "

The attack left three large welts on her chin, she said.

There was worse to come. Studying and sleeping had become difficult for Mentavlos, made more so by pain from a fractured pelvis sustained in training -- for which she was repeatedly sent to an athletic trainer, rather than the infirmary, according to her parents, Nick and Marian Mentavlos.

Late one night in October, two upperclassmen entered her room. One lighted a corner of her sweat shirt with a pocket lighter, Mentavlos said. The fire began to spread. "I could feel it up my arm," she recalled. She broke from the bracing position required tTC in the presence of upperclassmen to put it out. The two just laughed, she said.

The junior cadet ordered the sophomore to light her clothing again. This time, a hole burned through her sweat shirt before the tall junior stamped the fire out -- while she was still wearing the sweat shirt.

Then, at the end of November, came the kicking session. Mentavlos, Messer and two male freshmen had returned from a night of drinking and were spotted by an upperclassman. Dismissing the men, the upperclassman ordered the two women up to the room of the company commander, who was also there, Mentavlos said. The women were forced to stand on tiptoe facing in, inside a kind of doorless closet, in the rigid brace posture for 2 1/2 hours, Mentavlos said. They were kicked while the men cursed them and exhorted them to stretch higher.

A few weeks later, Mentavlos had another encounter with the sophomore and his lighter. This time, he splashed nail polish remover on her and the flames shot past the front of her ears, said Mentavlos, the daughter of a retired Secret Service agent.

Much of what Mentavlos related in an interview over the weekend, she told school officials last week in a lengthy statement. A Citadel spokesman, Col. Terry Leedom, said yesterday that the school would have no comment.

State and federal criminal investigations continue into the two women's contentions. Twelve cadets face college disciplinary charges. And the second-ranking official at the school was replaced last week by the father of one of two women who remain.

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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