Is he a rapist or a pawn in a military game to discredit the Air Force Academy sex scandal? For the first time, Douglas Meester answers the charges.
Woods and Meester were average but active cadets. Woods, who had founded her high school's fencing team, became a Falcon foilist. Meester made the debate squad. Both got so-so grades, and both had disciplinary problems shortly after arriving. A cadet's first year is structured to be the most challenging one, and it was hard on both of them. Each June, just minutes after the new cadets, or "doolies," arrive on campus, they are marched through an intensely regimented routine: They say good-bye to their parents and then file onto buses that transport them up a long, windy road into the heart of the academy. Onboard each bus are two upperclassmen, and as the buses pull away, one of them barks, "Take a good look at your families - you're not going to see them for a long time! Now you belong to the United States Air Force." It's a ritual intended to quickly force the doolies into submission. (Several years ago, as the buses pulled onto campus and parked under a massive sign that read "Bring Me Men," upperclassmen crowded around and beat on the windows so forcefully that one shattered, showering glass over the terrified cadets.)
From mid-June until the end of August, doolies attend Basic Cadet Training. At this mini boot camp, upperclassmen/instructors give the freshman, according to cadet lexicon, a weeks-long "beating." When the academic year begins in September, the physical rigors subside, but the environment is no less intense. Doolies carry a grueling course load and many of them participate in extracurricular activities. There is little freedom. They are not allowed phones, CD players, or TVs. They are rarely permitted off base. And throughout the year, they remain under the command of all three upperclasses. Unless otherwise directed, doolies (the term comes from the Greek "duolos," meaning slave) may only address their cadet-superiors with one of the following seven phrases:
No excuse, Sir/Ma'am.
Sir/Ma'am, may I make a statement?
Sir/Ma'am, may I ask a question?
Sir/Ma'am, I do not understand.
Sir/Ma'am, I do not know.
"When you're a new cadet the idea is you're developing, so you go through a hard year and prove you want to be at the academy," says junior cadet Justin Hickey. "You learn to follow so that one day you can lead. And the thing is, if you screw up in your freshman year, if you get yourself in academic or disciplinary trouble, there's very little chance you'll get straight. We call it the 'Trouble Bubble.' It's like, when you get here you have a clean slate, you're in a bubble of perfect-ness, but once you get in trouble your bubble has burst and you're pretty much doomed."
Meester's bubble burst toward the end of his doolie year. Drinking alcohol in the cadet dormitories is prohibited regardless of a cadet's age, but one Saturday night Meester and a couple of squad mates polished off a few bottles of liquor in his dorm room. He shoved the empties in a backpack and the next morning got nailed with the contraband during a squadronwide surprise inspection. It was a serious yet common offense.
Last fall, an academy survey revealed that at least 52 percent of seniors and more than one-third of freshman drank in their dorms. It's hardly surprising that cadets find a way to party when they get a break. After all, they're college students and they're dealing with a pressure-soaked environment that would break most adults. When Secretary Roche's task force last year interviewed Col. Laurie Sue Slavec, who was in charge of cadet discipline at the time (she has since been transferred), she said that despite the academy's strict written policy against alcohol in the dorms, "Partying is encouraged and partying is a ticket to acceptance." School officials put Meester on a six-month probation for drinking - one more violation for booze and he was out - but the reality was his squad mates were now high-fiving him in the hallway and calling him "The Bartender."
Two months into her first term, Woods' Trouble Bubble burst. She got into a couple of arguments with her fencing coach, and in front of the team she addressed the coach in a manner he felt was disrespectful. He told her she had an "attitude problem" and suspended her from the squad for a month. The day she was informed of her suspension, Woods decided to quit fencing and tried out for the gymnastics team. The fencing coach found out, had her banned from all academy athletic teams, and reprimanded her for insubordination.
On that Friday night in October 2002, Woods and Meester were both stressed out, angry, and already tiring of what they saw as institutional hypocrisy. In his room, Meester cracked open bottles of vodka and Southern Comfort and downed at least 10 shots. In her room, Woods drank from a plastic water bottle filled with booze. The specific contents were a mystery to her because it was something the student officer in charge of her dorm had dropped off as a "morale booster" after he heard about her problems with the fencing coach. When Woods finished the bottle, she got on her computer and received an instant message from former fencing teammate Robert Rando. The e-mail said, "I'll hook you up with booze, if you'll hook up with me." Twenty minutes later, around 11 p.m., she and Rando were sitting in Meester and Wager's room.