Air Force experience wrecks woman's dreams

Ex-cadet feels victimized by school's sexual culture

April 23, 2003|By Judith Graham | Judith Graham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ELM GROVE, Wis. - Only a year ago, Andrea Prasse was a star at the elite Air Force Academy. In the top third of her class with a high-ranking leadership position, she was soon to graduate and begin training as a fighter pilot.

Now she's a woman of 22 who has no diploma, is an outcast among her former classmates and has been the subject of death threats over the Internet.

Officially, she was found guilty of violating the academy's sacrosanct honor code that enjoins cadets not to lie, cheat, steal or tolerate others who do so.

But worse, in the eyes of many at the academy, she has spoken out against a fellow student and an institution that expects absolute loyalty.

Prasse says school officials allowed a male cadet to stalk and harass her for almost a year, refusing to intervene in any meaningful way. It was this student who was largely responsible for the honor code accusations, which Prasse contends were vindictive and unfounded.

The story of the Wisconsin native's experiences opens a window into a military college culture that officials now acknowledge is often hostile and denigrating to women. The academy's methods were made public this year when at least 47 women came forward to members of Congress to report being raped or sexually assaulted.

Stung by the ensuing criticism, the Air Force last month decided to remove four leaders at the academy and announced a series of changes designed to prevent assaults, tighten accountability and handle sexual tensions at the college more effectively.

They include separate living arrangements for men and women during freshman year boot camp, the clustering of women in dorm rooms near bathrooms, a promise that victims who report assaults won't be subject to academy discipline for breaking rules and heightened, round-the-clock security in the dorm buildings.

"Enough talking. It's time for doing," Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida said during a ceremony last week installing him as the new acting superintendent and commandant of cadets. But whether the overhaul goes deep enough to the heart of the problems women have struggled with at the academy is a matter of debate.

"It's a good start," said Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican and a critic of the academy's handling of sex abuse allegations, "but we need to make sure we monitor these changes for five years at least. There needs to be close oversight."

Prasse is even more skeptical. The primary problem she and others identify at an institution they describe as having a male-dominated culture where disdain for women is commonplace won't be altered by the changes officials are making, she says.

Prasse's four years at the college destroyed her trust in military justice and shattered her dreams of a career as an astronaut. "They throw as much at you as possible, calling you ugly and fat, to see how much you can take," said Susan Archibald, an academy graduate and former instructor.

Having to prove her grit didn't bother Prasse so much as the disparaging remarks male classmates made. Male cadets often joked about female students who had what they called "CHD," or "Colorado hip disease," and "terrazzo butts," a reference to a wide grassy area on the campus.

When she objected, "they made you feel it was your fault that you had a problem," she said. "It was always the female's fault."

It was a harbinger of what was to come.

Late in the spring of her freshman year, Prasse went to downtown Colorado Springs with a group from her squadron. When they got back, her next-door neighbor, a junior who had been drinking, pulled her into his room, pushed her down on the bed, pulled off her clothes and assaulted her, she said.

It stopped short of rape, Prasse said, because she cried and asked him, "How would you feel if this was happening to your sister?"

To Prasse, reporting the incident wasn't an option. All her training told her that if things get tough at the academy, a cadet is expected to buck up and take it.

"If you rock the boat, if you complain, everyone hates you," Prasse said. "They would have accused me of trying to ruin this guy's life. And we were going to be in the same squadron the next year, so why make waves?"

By senior year, Prasse had shown herself to be an exemplary student, one of only two women in her class scheduled to graduate with a degree in aeronautical engineering. The only demerits on her record were for minor offenses such as being late to class. She was held in such esteem that she was appointed director of operations for her group, a high-ranking position.

But Prasse had a problem. A fellow student in aeronautical engineering had started criticizing her incessantly and demonstrating increasingly controlling behavior, such as wanting to know where she was and who she was with at all times, Prasse claims.

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