Symbols before substance

April 07, 2003

BRING ME MEN.

For 38 years, those words greeted cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

During the last 27 of those years, the 2-foot-high aluminum lettering, on a stone arch under which cadets march, assumed a meaning it did not originally intend: To some viewers, it silently spelled out a rebuke to women entering the academy.

Past recommendations to remove the sign fell on deaf ears. The excuse? Tradition.

In a symbolic gesture, the academy removed the sign last week. This came just days after a clean sweep of top brass, prodded by a congressional investigation into allegations that they allowed cadets who raped classmates to go unpunished and the victims to be ostracized and harassed.

Academy officials also agreed at last, under pressure, to let the county district attorney's office take an independent look at the rape allegations. New policies about women's sleeping quarters and whistleblower protections are being put in place.

But this is just a start.

In the weeks and months ahead, it will take much more than these beginning procedural, staffing and symbolic steps to make the Air Force Academy an enlightened institution. Its spokesmen have acknowledged that the problem is deep in the Air Force and academy culture. New evidence released last week seems to confirm it:

In a 2001 campus survey, 167 cadets said they had been sexually assaulted at the academy. Another 80 reported assaults the next year. In 2003, the academy simply stopped posing the question.

Not seeing did not make the problem go away. This head-in-the-sand attitude is unbefitting an institution that asks its graduates to put their lives on the line in defense of this country. The images from Iraq of American POWs who happen to be female remind us that patriotic sacrifice knows no gender.

Changing a culture that tolerates abuse of women won't happen overnight: It will require the shock and awe of constant training and enforcement of zero-tolerance policies that transcend rank, from the Pentagon down to the recruiting officers.

It requires an understanding that the solution is full integration, not segregation, of the women within the academy. Segregation that has been proposed may in fact obscure the more direct need: to deal with intolerable behavior of their male peers instead of isolating the potential victims. It won't succeed until the Air Force decides that rapists do not have the right to wear the uniform, and acts on that decision.

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