COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The former superintendent of the Air Force Academy, Lt. Gen. John Dallager, has been demoted by one star, in the clearest move yet to punish a commanding officer after the sexual assault scandal at the school.
A statement issued Thursday said that Air Force Secretary James Roche had stripped Dallager of one of his three stars, so he will retire Sept. 1 as a major general.
The demotion came on the eve of Dallager's first public testimony since the scandal erupted, after female cadets came forward to say they had been raped at the school and were discouraged from reporting the abuse.
The statement said that Dallager "did not exercise the degree of leadership in this situation that we expect of our commanders."
Dallager and three other top officers from the academy were replaced in April. But he had maintained in public comments that he was merely being transferred, not removed.
In testimony yesterday before an independent panel reviewing issues of sexual assault at the academy, Dallager said that he was "very disappointed" with the demotion, but declined to comment further on it.
He and other former senior commanders defended their performance, saying they had done nothing wrong and were unaware of the degree to which sexual assault was a problem among cadets. They attributed their lack of awareness to a policy of granting confidentiality to victims who seek help, unless the victims decided to seek a criminal investigation. That policy has been rescinded.
The panel was created after dozens of female current and former cadets at the Air Force Academy came forward this year to say they had been raped by male cadets, and felt they had been scorned when they tried to seek help. Routinely, they said, cadets who raped them avoided court-martial, while the victims faced punishment for relatively minor infractions on their part that surfaced through investigations.
Many young women lost their careers in the Air Force. They were shunned by fellow cadets, they said, and blamed by the former leadership for lying or allowing themselves to be raped.
In testimony yesterday, Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III, former commandant of cadets, denied that he had ignored sexual assaults or blamed the victims. "I view every assault case as if it were my own child," he said. "I never, never blamed the victim. I never punished the victim."
During his tenure, he said, no suspected rapists avoided court-martial or were permitted to resign in lieu of court-martial.
Dallager said that he and other leaders at the academy were unaware that a crisis was brewing. Though the academy had commissioned annual climate surveys that gauged incidents and attitudes toward sexual assault, those never reached Dallager. Rather, the academy had created a cadet-run victim services hot line, which he said was seen as a model for other academies to follow.
"Perhaps we had a false sense of well-being," he said. "We had folks coming to us, modeling their programs after us."
The issue of confidentiality emerged yesterday as a main focus of the review panel, which is led by former Rep. Tillie Fowler of Florida. The panel spent Thursday in closed meetings with the former leaders of the academy and in interviews with up to a dozen current and former cadets who said they were raped. Questions yesterday reflected new information they had gained about the difficulties female cadets faced in trying to report rapes.
"It's very apparent to us," said retired Marine Col. John W. Ripley, "that the system at the Air Force Academy has utterly failed the majority of victims." Singly and as a group, he added, victims were "scared to death to come forward."
Under a new policy at the academy, women who are raped will no longer have the option to seek confidential help on campus. The Air Force has portrayed the change as necessary so academy practices will conform to those in the force itself, where cadets will one day serve. The Air Force also maintains that thorough investigations and prosecution are the only way cadets will realize that rape is not an infraction, but a crime.
But advocates and victims contend that forcing women either to confront the prospect of an investigation in the immediate aftermath of a rape, or remain silent in the closed environment of the academy, would only deepen the pain for victims.
There was also the matter of trust, victims said. "It was my own chain of command that was persecuting me, so why would I report a rape to my chain of command?" said Kira Mountjoy-Pepka, a former cadet who said she was raped by another cadet.
Fowler and other panelists also suggested that ordering women to come forward, given the academy's poor track record, would camouflage rather than remedy the problem.
"I'm concerned that next April, May, you'll say the numbers" of rapes at the academy "went down, and what's really happened is they went underground," Fowler told the academy's new commanders. The new superintendent, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, was sworn in Wednesday.