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From Draft NOtices, September - October, 2003

Air Force Academy Rape Trials Begin

One in Five Female Cadets and a 7th Grader Sexually Assaulted

— Lorraine Demi


Draft NOtices recently reported (March/April 2003) on a series of rape allegations by female cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO. Now, many months later, the investigations are underway, courts-martial have begun, the top brass at the Academy has been replaced and overridden in decisions made before their replacement, and more investigations continue. Yet the women attacked by their "equals" in a school they thought would guide their future are still suffering. Further, we learn now that even younger girls visiting the Academy for summer camps are at risk of assault by male Air Force Academy cadets. Raping young girls and women seems to be an epidemic at the Academy. In fact, a recent survey shows that nearly one in five female cadets at the Academy report being sexually assaulted.

The Investigations

The story broke in February 2003 when female cadets went public with reports of sexual assault by fellow cadets, which was met with indifference or retribution from their superiors. Yet a recent Air Force review found no deliberate wrongdoing by Academy officials in handling the complaints. Reports have continued to flow in since then, and even the ABC News television show 20/20 covered the rape of a junior high school girl on the Academy campus by a male Academy cadet.

The Courts-Martial and Replacing the Top Brass

Frustrating and demoralizing to the victims and their families, these rapists are receiving -- and may continue to receive — minimal sentences. They are being offered plea bargains in which victims are seen as willing partners in the crime. Multi-year sentences are commuted to multi-month punishments or even less.

The Air Force Academy will soon court-martial the first cadet to be charged with rape since the scandal began. Sophomore Douglas Meester, 20, could face life in prison and dismissal from the Air Force if convicted of sexual assault, indecent assault and providing alcohol to minors. In May, Meester's Article 32 hearing resulted in a suggestion that he receive administrative punishment, likely dismissal from the Air Force. Since Brig. Gen. John Weida became the cadet commandant earlier this year in the management shake-up caused by the scandal, he rejected the recommendation of the then-investigating officer and decided to court-martial Meester instead. Regardless of this punitive decision, which was purposefully shared with the media to suggest the Air Force's intention to punish these Academy rapists, defense attorney Capt. Kathleen Reder stated that Meester has several options, including asking the Secretary of the Air Force to approve his resignation instead of a court-martial — meaning he could walk away with no punishment at all, other than separation from the Air Force. A job resignation may be taken in exchange for a woman's assault, her loss of self-esteem, and an event that will affect the rest of her life.

Investigations are underway to determine whether cadet Jason Lewis should face a court-martial for sexually assaulting a female cadet in his dorm room, and another involving cadet Sterling Barnes, accused of running a pornographic Internet operation out of his dorm room. Presumably, more courts-martial will be considered as the investigations continue.

Problem Extends Beyond Cadets: Summer Camper Raped

Who is more vulnerable than female cadets at the Air Force Academy, you ask? Well, how about middle-school students who attended a cheerleading summer camp at the Academy in the summer of 2001, and likely those who attended similar annual summer sports camps for hundreds of teens before and after that summer, too. Abbey, then a 13-year-old 7th grader, attended a sports camp in the summer of 2001, hoping to learn new tumbling skills she could use to get on the cheerleading squad when she started high school in a couple of years. Instead, she was raped by a 22-year-old Air Force Cadet, Robert Burdge, who was serving as a counselor of the camp. He targeted Abbey, asking fellow Air Force Academy counselors about her, finding her room in the camper dorms, convincing her that their mothers were friends, luring her out of her dorm room late at night on this premise, and then sexually assaulting her in his dorm room. Burdge then angrily threatened Abbey, telling her she had better not tell anyone what had happened. She was afraid to tell her parents when she got home, and Burdge began calling her at her home, threatening her and reminding her not to tell anyone what had happened.

In the meantime, Burdge falsified documents by writing a phony story of how he took Abbey out of her room that night to "meet another guy camper" — thus indicating that Abbey was to blame, a fictional camper was involved, and Burdge had another reason for luring her from her room that horrible night. Abbey's parents learned of the assault when Air Force investigators, who were conducting a drug investigation on Burdge (which was underway when he was assigned to counsel and supervise youth at the summer camp), stumbled upon the case. One of the witnesses in the drug case mentioned the assault, and the Air Force investigators asked Abbey to help them gather more information on Burdge via a wire tap on her phone. Abbey cooperated and Burdge quickly implicated himself by calling again and pressuring her not to tell anyone about the rape and to "stick to the (cover) story" he made up. She and her parents were told that with that tape of their conversation, Burdge would spend 10 to 25 years in prison with very little chance of a reduced sentence. But Burdge's defense team began harassing the family by contacting Abbey's middle-school friends, seeking information that might show Abbey to be promiscuous, and thus "at blame" for her own rape by a 22-year-old man. Then -- unknown to traumatized Abbey, her family or her therapist — Air Force lawyers allowed Burdge to plead guilty to a reduced charge that implied that Abbey was a willing participant in her rape — even though, by his own tape-recorded admission, the case was regarding forcible rape of a minor.

"She was not portrayed as a victim. There was nobody to speak of what she had suffered, what she continued to suffer," said Abbey's mother.

Burdge was released from the Air Force, labeled a sex offender, forced to repay the cost of his education, and given 60 days in jail. Abbey was in shock, frustrated and betrayed. "I couldn't believe it — 60 days is like nothing."

Burdge has served his 60 days and is now out, working only a few miles from the Academy. Abbey's parents are now suing the Air Force for not protecting their daughter at camp.

Survey of Cadets

Nearly 19% of female cadets surveyed (109 of 579) report being sexually assaulted during their time at the Academy. Sexual assault was defined in the survey as anything from unwanted touching to rape. In 89% of the cases, the assailant was identified as another cadet. The survey also showed that 11% of senior female cadets and 3% of female freshmen reported being a victim of rape or attempted rape since enrolling at the Academy, which is quite beyond the lower level of the assault definition: "unwanted touching." Annual internal Academy surveys conducted from 1996 to 2002, with the exception of 1999, even showed that 11-19% of female cadets reported sexual assault since enrolling at the Academy.

Just for clarity, the first courts-martial in these cases were discussed in July 2003 — approximately seven years after the first survey reports showed a major problem at the Academy.


The Air Force Academy's new commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, says these acts of sexual assault are tarnishing the school's image: "I've seen the numbers and we have a problem. . . . If we don't reverse this trend, the very existence of this institution is threatened." Three probes are currently underway into the complacency of Academy leaders, and sometimes the punishment of female cadets, when rape or sexual assault allegations were raised. The survey results, showing nearly one in five female cadets reporting sexual assault, have also been given to an independent panel created by Congress to investigate the Academy's conduct.

A second survey was administered to cadets on Wednesday, August 27, 2003, and a third is expected this fall. The upcoming survey will also be given to cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to compare the climate at the three academies. Pentagon Inspector General Joseph E. Schmitz's report containing the survey results (one of the three current probes) are expected to be released in December. The outcome of that report will be bad for young women one way or another — either it will be found that women are harassed in greater numbers at the Air Force Academy, or it will be found that this horrible epidemic is present across the board at all military schools. Whatever the outcome, this does not bode well for women in the military, training for the military, or merely visiting the "elite" military schools.

Information sources: Associated Press, July 3, 2003 and August 28, 2003;, June 28, 2003.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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