WASHINGTON - In wartime, Congress routinely rallies behind the troops. But in recent weeks, even as lawmakers have paid tribute to U.S. forces in Iraq, anger has mounted on Capitol Hill toward certain corners of the United States Air Force over a sexual assault scandal that won't go away.
Lawmakers say the service has not done enough to address allegations of sexual assault, rape and a climate of intimidation at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Although the allegations are alarming on their face, lawmakers give another reason for concern: Members of Congress are responsible for nominating most of the academy's cadets. As one of the academy's home-state senators, Republican Wayne Allard has received 42 allegations from current and former cadets of rape or other sexual assault. One stood out because it came from a woman Allard had nominated.
"When women come to our office who are highly qualified, we really push hard to get them into the academy," he said. "That's what makes this so personal."
Normally a quiet and consistent supporter of the Bush administration and the military, Allard led a revolt in the Senate last week against the Air Force leadership.
He sponsored a measure, approved Wednesday, that would force the Pentagon to accept an independent, nonmilitary inquiry of the academy and its leadership. The measure must be approved by the House and President Bush before taking effect.
But its passage indicated increasing congressional impatience with Air Force Secretary James G. Roche and Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff.
That frustration has built though Roche and Jumper have visited Capitol Hill several times to address the issue in public and private since reports of the scandal emerged in January. They have pledged to reform the academy to ensure that sexual misconduct is deterred, assailants are punished and victims are encouraged to come forward.
"No one takes this situation more seriously than I do," Jumper told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "No one has got more at stake as far as the reputation of their institution than the secretary of the Air Force and I do.
"I can guarantee you that I have spared no energy - even in the face of this war - I have spared no energy, nor will I spare any energy to get to the bottom of this."
Jumper and Roche have named new leaders for the academy and new rules in response to disturbing statistics - 56 allegations of sexual misconduct involving the academy received by the Air Force since 1993; Allard's tally of 42 cases, most of which have not been reported to the Air Force because the alleged victims fear reprisal; and other data from recent surveys of cadets that show sexual assault as a significant issue on campus.
Although Jumper and Roche have moved rapidly to address the scandal, they have been slow to embrace the idea of an outside inquiry and have declined to blame the departing academy leadership for troubles that they say go back years.
That does not sit well with members of Congress, who every year nominate high school seniors for appointment to the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy in Annapolis and the Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
Sen. Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat who co-sponsored Allard's amendment, said he heard Tuesday that a female student from his state had been accepted at the Air Force Academy. Pryor called to congratulate her and talk about the situation in Colorado Springs.
"She is excited, eager, ready to go," Pryor told the Senate. But he said: "As I continue to recommend that young men and women go to our military academies, I want to proceed with confidence and know that they are going into a healthy environment."
In an Armed Services hearing Monday, Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Republican from Maine, told Roche and Jumper that it has always been one of her proudest honors to nominate young men and women to attend the service academies. "I've always thought in doing so that I was affording these young men and women an extraordinary opportunity to receive an excellent education. I never dreamed that in doing so I was putting young women at risk for sexual assault, and that troubles me deeply," she said.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said that for 20 years in Congress he has made an effort to recruit women for the prestigious military universities, which students attend tuition-free in return for a service commitment.
In Colorado Springs, where the first women graduated in 1980, nearly one in five cadets is female.
Heather A. Wilson, of the Class of 1982, is a Republican congresswoman from New Mexico.
"I was never assaulted, nor did I know of any of my friends who were," Wilson said. Nonetheless, she said she is convinced that the academy faces a serious problem: "We're not talking about one or two cases here." She called reports that female cadets fear intimidation for reporting assaults "cancerous."
Air Force officials have rushed to reassure parents of the incoming class.
About 1,300 students are expected to be offered admission to the Class of 2007 from the lists of nominees sent to the academy by 535 members of Congress and other military and executive branch sources. Officials project that at least 218 women will enroll.
Col. William D. Carpenter, the academy's director of admissions, wrote to incoming cadets and their families Feb. 26 saying he and a group of female cadets and graduates were prepared to respond to any of their concerns.
"Character development is at the core of everything we do, and we are considered a national leader in this area," Carpenter wrote. "That's one reason why the recent sexual assault issue has been so troubling."
Nick Anderson is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.