It was after midnight, and Jacqueline Woods*, an 18-year-old freshman at the United States Air Force Academy, was feeling too ashamed to sleep. She flicked on her computer and saw that her brother, an academy senior who lived in a neighboring dorm, was also online. As they began exchanging instant messages, she decided to tell him what had happened—at least what she could remember.
Hey, Josh, I need to talk to you about something serious but I don’t know if I can.
What is it?
Last night, I did something really stupid and it turned out really, really bad.
More from our Conduct Unbecoming Issue
- This Little Boy Will Become a Garbage Man for a Day Thanks to Make-A-Wish Colorado
- With the Drought Over, Will Prescribed Fire Be a Priority?
- The Best of the 2019 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen
- 5 Can’t-Miss Summer Art Exhibits
- 7 Ways to Celebrate the Summer Solstice
- Icelantic’s New Swimwear Is Built for Epic Colorado Adventures
- There’s a New Members-Only Dining Club in Denver
Woods explained that the night before – Oct. 18, 2002 – she had downed a squeeze bottle full of booze in her quarters and then went to the nearby room of sophomores Douglas Meester and Jason Wager. There, with Meester, Wager, and Robert Rando, a junior, she drank even more.
[I] got completely messed up to the point where I couldn’t hold myself up. And for pretty much the whole night I guess I was hanging off of Rando, but he was messed up too and was trying to make arrangements to kick his roommate out so we could go over there, but still I was too out of it to know what all was really going on. It seemed like everything wasn’t real.
The even more fucked up part was the stupid [Meester] who’s room we were in, [who’s] on frickin’ alcohol probation and all this shit, kept tryin’ to make out with me every time Rando left the room to kick his roommate out. Finally Rando was gone for like 15 minutes or something and I had to be propped up by [Meester] and I guess he thought because I was leaning all over him that I wanted to get on him – but I started blacking out at that point. It was like in and out, but basically the guy was messin’ with me because I couldn’t really move.
Anyway, he had to like carry me back and I was still fuckin’ out of it until like 10 a.m.—but then I would get flashes of things that happened last night that I didn’t remember and just everything’s fucked up.
Flashes of what?
Like stuff the guy was doing to me.
What was he doing?
Everything and it’s all my fault.
Did he rape you?
Within minutes, Josh was in his sister’s room. Within hours, he ushered her off campus to a hospital in nearby Colorado Springs, where she underwent a sexual-assault medical exam and met with agents from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI); Woods formally alleged that Meester had raped her while she was inebriated and “semi-conscious.”
Within six months, OSI completed its investigation and the chief investigation officer (IO) produced a 21-page memorandum that summarized the facts of the case. The report, which along with supporting witness statements was obtained by 5280, listed reason on top of reason to dismiss Woods’ claim that the intercourse had been rape. Among the evidence was a statement Woods herself had made to OSI agents that night at the hospital: “I know for a fact that he [Meester] probably thought what we were doing was consensual because I know that I was responding to what he was doing (i.e., If he would kiss me, I would kiss him back.).”
The IO’s report was promptly sent to the interim head of the Air Force Academy, Brig. Gen. Johnny A. Weida. In the military justice system, it is up to the commanding officer of an accused soldier to decide whether allegations merit prosecution. Although commanding officers almost always ratify an IO’s recommendation, in this case Weida rejected the advice and ordered that Meester stand trial.
A preliminary hearing in the court-martial of Douglas Meester is scheduled for March, with the trial set to start in May. Twenty-year-old Meester will be the first Air Force cadet ever prosecuted for cadet-on-cadet rape; he faces a possible sentence of life in prison. At trial, Meester will insist that he and Woods got drunk and had consensual sex. He will insist that he is a pawn in a show trial staged by Air Force brass who do not want to accept responsibility for covering up decades of sexual assault and misogyny at the prestigious military institution. And he may be right.
Douglas Meester takes a seat on the couch inside his father’s Florida home. In his academy head shot, the one that has accompanied countless newspaper stories about the case, Meester appears ramrod straight in his dress blues, smiling the smile of young flyboy on an autopilot course to success. Seeing the photo, you might peg him as a tall, strapping guy. But on this August afternoon, two months after Weida ordered his court-martial, Meester barely resembles that cadet. He is of average height, thin, and gangling. His face and physique are all straight lines and right angles, except for his slumped shoulders. Perched on the edge of the couch, he nervously rubs his knees and his eyes flit about. This is the first time Meester has talked with a journalist, and thus far the press has skewered him.
Meester, like Woods, left the academy after the semester of the incident, and he has since followed the media coverage of his case. He read Jim Spencer’s Denver Post column in which Meester was compared to a necrophiliac. He’s watched television pundits speculate about what they think he did or should have done on that drunken night. He even saw the Senate subcommittee hearings on C-SPAN, and heard politicians presume him guilty. “To smear my name in the media simply because of allegations, I think is ridiculous,” Meester says. “It’s absurd. The academy, the press, I think the rush to condemn me is a result of the scandal.”
The now infamous Air Force Academy scandal began last January, just four months after Woods filed her report with OSI, when several former female cadets first told Westword’s Julie Jargon and shortly thereafter told 7 News (KMGH-TV) reporter John Ferrugia that they had been raped by male cadets. What’s more, they claimed that when they took their charges to the academy’s chain of command, the women were blamed, punished, and informed their military careers would be ruined unless they dropped the accusations, while their alleged rapists received administrative slaps on the wrist.
The story quickly commanded national headlines. In response, academy officials publicly insisted that the school had “zero tolerance” for sexual assault, and by way of proof it released statistics claiming that since 1990 it had investigated 56 reports of sexual assault and disciplined 20 male cadets. But of those cases, only one – a 1998 incident involving a civilian and a cadet – resulted in a rape conviction. The rest were reduced to lesser charges, and in most cases resulted in punishments as insignificant as disciplinary demerits (or “hits,” as they are known in cadet lingo). When pressed, the academy was forced to admit that it had never prosecuted a case of cadet-on-cadet rape.
In fact, the school’s second highest-ranking officer seemed downright unsympathetic to the charges being made by its female students. Asked to comment on the case of a cadet who claimed she’d been raped by another cadet at an off-campus party, Brig. Gen. Taco Gilbert issued a statement: “When you put yourself in situations with increased risk, you have to take increased precautions to mitigate those risks. For example, if I walk down a dark alley with hundred-dollar bills hanging from my pockets, it doesn’t justify my being attacked or robbed, but I certainly increased my risks by doing what I did.”
In the midst of the ensuing media frenzy, Air Force Secretary James Roche relieved the academy’s top four officials from duty, including Gilbert and the academy’s superintendent, Gen. James Dallagher. Roche also dispatched a task force to Colorado Springs to investigate. The team was on campus for 10 days and left without interviewing any alleged victims. Critics called Roche’s actions a sham.
The Defense Department, the Air Force Inspector General, and the U.S. Senate subsequently all launched their own investigations. The senate’s seven-member team, led by former Florida congresswoman Tillie Fowler, found that in the past decade academy officials had, in fact, received sexual-assault allegations from at least 142 cadets – more than twice the number of cases (56) that the academy had reported investigating. Fowler also discovered an entrenched institutional misogyny that has existed from the very first year women were admitted to the academy in 1977. Reading through cadet responses to the academy’s internal 2002 “Social Climate Survey,” Fowler found that some male cadets wrote, “Even with women in the Armed Forces they should not be at the military academies,” and “Women are worthless and should be taken away from the USAFA.”
As the scandal peaked this past June, the Senate Armed Services subcommittee convened a hearing. Alleged victims testified, as did the ousted academy leaders. Sen. John McCain, who chaired the hearings, called the brass’ testimony “one of the most remarkable evasions of responsibility I have ever seen…. The Secretary of the Air Force has proven, to our satisfaction, that he cannot and will not address this crisis at the Air Force Academy in a mature and efficient fashion.”
One week later, Roche demoted Gen. Dallagher from three stars to two. Dallagher’s interim replacement, Gen. Weida, decided to court-martial Meester.
“I had faith that the Air Force would do the right thing and dismiss [Jacqueline’s] claim,” says Meester’s father, Doug Sr., sitting on the couch next to his son. “But I don’t anymore. I don’t think they care about justice; this court-martial is about PR and politics. All the academy wants is a pound of flesh to cover their ass.”
It’s the sort of thing you might expect a father in this situation to say. But Jacqueline Woods’ mother, Marie, has an equally cynical take on the unprecedented court-martial. “The academy doesn’t care about my daughter,” she told me as we talked in her home outside Philadelphia. (Jacqueline refused to be interviewed for this story, but she sat in the next room as I talked to her mother.) “I’ve believed all along that academy brass and Secretary Roche got together and talked about this case and what they could do to make themselves and the Air Force Academy look good. I think they want to put her on the stand and have her raked over the coals and peel back her skin. They think that if they can discredit [Jacqueline], they can discredit all the other girls who have reported being raped.”
Air Force cadets get one of the best college educations taxpayer money can buy; in return, graduates serve as officers for at least five years. It works the same way at the other three U.S. service academies – the Army’s West Point, the Navy’s Annapolis, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. And, like the students who are accepted to those institutions, Air Force cadets are some of the best students American high schools have to offer. The 1,052 men and 224 women who entered the academy last fall as the class of 2007 had an average high school GPA of 3.9 and an average SAT score of 1,290. Sixty-six percent were members of the National Honor Society, 96 percent played at least one varsity sport, and 10 percent were student-body presidents. The majority choose the Air Force Academy because they want to fly. Meester and Woods chose the school for other reasons.
Meester enrolled with the class of ’05 searching for stability. When he was five years old, his folks divorced, and throughout his teen years, he began dividing his time and emotions while coping with the usual adolescent pressures. In high school, he enjoyed the kind of pursuits that impose order on the universe: science and math classes, the chess and debate teams, and drilling with his high school ROTC program. The summer after his sophomore year, Meester attended a science camp at the academy and was immediately impressed by the aeronautics-heavy curriculum and the program’s spit-and-polish certainty. “I thought it was a prestigious, clear-cut, no-BS kind of place,” he says. “If you stick to it, you know exactly the path you can go. There’s no chance. No ambiguity as to what it is you’re going to do with yourself.”
Woods came to Colorado Springs because her brother Josh had raved about the academy and because she wanted to be with her boyfriend. After Josh left for the academy, the Woods volunteered as host family for academy prep students who were attending a local military high school. One day, the Woods had some preppers over for pizza and a movie, and while Top Gun played on the television, 14-year-old Jacqueline and 18-year-old prepper Zeke Cuny flirted their way into a romance. Because the academy prohibits fraternization of cadets in different classes, when Woods entered the academy she and Cuny pledged to stop dating until after Cuny graduated.
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.
Meester, The Bartender, pulled out a bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila, some shot glasses, salt, and a lime. He had talked with Woods once before, but only briefly, so they got reacquainted while Rando cut up the lime. Then Woods turned off the overhead lights, flicked on a desk lamp, and poured the first round.
Two or three shots later, according to OSI documents, Rando explained to Woods what a “body shot” was, and Woods said she was game. Rando licked the salt from her neck, downed the shot, and sucked the lime slice she held in her mouth. Doing the body shot made her uncomfortable, Woods later told OSI, but she didn’t want the guys to think she was uptight. She did another body shot with Rando, only this time she did the licking and sucking, and licked the salt off his bare chest. After watching Rando and Woods do at least three body shots each, Meester decided to jump in. “I’ll show you how to do a body shot,” he said. He lifted up Woods’ sweatshirt and sports bra – Meester and Wager would tell OSI that she helped Meester lift her clothes – and, without protest from Woods, Meester did a body shot off of her left breast.
Several times throughout the night Woods glanced at her watch. Although she and her boyfriend, Zeke Cuny, had pledged to end their romance, they hadn’t done so. That night the couple had plans to meet in her room at 1 a.m. As the night continued, though, Woods told OSI, she was “clingy” with Rando. She sat in his lap. They kissed. Rando told her that she was all he had wanted for months. Twice, Rando left the drinking party and went across the hall to his room, trying unsuccessfully to get his roommate to leave so that he could be alone with Woods. At least twice, while Rando was gone, Woods allowed Meester to kiss her. Once when Rando came back into Meester’s room, Woods asked him, “Are you jealous because I’m kissing Meester?”
Around 1:30 a.m. – half an hour past Woods’ rendezvous time with her boyfriend – the booze was gone. Rando left, and Wager followed to use the bathroom. Woods stayed with Meester. In the two and a half hours that the cadets had been together, Wager did three shots, Rando did at least 10, and Meester and Woods each did six. For Meester, that was six on top of the 10 he drank by himself earlier, and for Woods, who is 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 118 pounds, that was six on top of the seven-ounce squirt bottle of mystery booze she downed.
When Wager returned from the bathroom he found Meester and Woods standing in the middle of the room, making out. Wager told them that he had no intention of leaving. Meester and Woods looked at him and laughed, so he got into bed, turned his face to the wall, and fell asleep.
On his bed, Meester removed Woods’ sweatpants and performed oral sex on her. At that point, as Woods told OSI, the alcohol had rendered her “completely numb.” She wasn’t sure, but thought she felt Meester’s tongue inside her. About this time, Rando told OSI, he came back into Meester’s room and saw Woods in bed moving her arms around, apparently in response to something Meester was doing. He left the room and did not come back in, because, he said, the next time he approached Meester’s door he heard Woods moaning.
Woods doesn’t remember how intercourse began, because, according to her OSI statement, she had blacked out; she remembers waking up in the missionary position. “[I felt] incredibly guilty and dirty, as if my boyfriend was in the room watching us,” she said, “and also feeling incredibly insecure, wondering, Does he know my name? So I asked him, ‘What’s my name?’ He said, ‘Jacqueline.’ But then I blacked out again.”
“Doggy-style intercourse” occurred next, according to Meester’s OSI statement, and at one point, Meester says, she “reinserted” him into her. According to Woods: “I woke up as he was flipping me onto my stomach and tossing my body around like I was a rag doll and he attempted to penetrate me from that position. It could be because he was very drunk and ‘missed,’ but I remember being very embarrassed because I thought that he had penetrated my anus, which is something that I have always been very against.” Meester was not wearing a condom and when he told Woods that he had ejaculated, according to Woods’ OSI statement, she was “very scared.”
Wager, meanwhile, slept through the whole incident. The only sound he reported hearing was, at some point, Woods saying, “No.” As Wager told investigators, he did not hear the context. Meester told OSI that he never heard Woods say no, and Woods reported that she didn’t remember saying it.
Afterward, Meester went to the bathroom and returned to find Woods sitting on the floor, putting on her clothes. She dressed herself and tied her shoes. Rando then entered the room again and, as he told OSI, “half-walked-half-carried” Woods back to her room at about 3 a.m. She would later ask her roommate if Cuny, her boyfriend, had come to their room at 1 a.m. as planned.
That afternoon, at 2:23 p.m., Woods sent Cuny an e-mail in which she tried to explain a bit about her night. She wrote that she got drunk and that Meester had “mess[ed] with me and shit…. I’m sure [Meester] wasn’t thinking at all either, so I can’t tell you he attacked me or anything. I just feel disgusting and horrible and I want to die right now. And I’m sure you probably want to kill me…. I am so stupid and made a huge mistake last night and I don’t know how to fix it…”
In addition to rape, Meester is charged with forcible sodomy, committing indecent acts, and conduct unbecoming an officer. A panel of 11 Air Force officers – 10 male and one female – has already been selected to sit in judgment of him. They will decide, in effect, whether on that night two stressed-out college kids got drunk and had a one-night stand, or whether it was something criminal.
Many of the academy’s other alleged sexual-assault victims, at least the ones who have recounted their stories in the press, said their rapists either used physical force or abused rank to commit the assault. One of the women who spoke to 7 News’ Ferrugia said an upperclassmen ordered her to fellate him; another said her assailant threatened to make her life at the academy a living hell if she reported that he had raped her. Woods, however, did not claim Meester physically forced or ordered her to do anything. The thrust of her allegation is that Meester took advantage of her while she was “beyond impaired” – in other words, too drunk to resist. As Woods wrote in a memo to Brig. Gen. Weida, “Never did I give Cadet Meester, someone I barely knew, permission to touch me or have sex with me.”
According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the panel that will judge Meester must find that he raped Woods if it is proven that Woods was “incapable due to the lack of mental or physical faculties of giving consent.” If, on the other hand, the panel determines that Woods was “in possession of her mental and physical faculties and failed to make her lack of consent reasonably manifest by taking such measures of resistance as are called for by the circumstances,” Meester must be found innocent. Put another way, if the panel determines that Woods was sober enough to know what was going on and did not resist either in word or deed, “then the inference may be drawn that she consented.”
In the chief investigation officer’s detailed memorandum that Gen. Weida considered when deciding whether or not to court-martial Meester, the IO wrote: “There is substantial evidence to indicate that Woods did have the mental alertness and ability to communicate with Meester during the sexual intercourse and make her lack of consent reasonably manifest. Specifically, she described looking at her watch and being cognizant of the time that she was supposed to be meeting with her boyfriend. She was also alert enough to realize that she was engaging in sexual intercourse with Meester, and even asked him a question. She could have taken the next step to reasonably manifest her lack of consent to the sexual intercourse.
“Throughout the night Woods never indicated verbally or through any physical manifestation that she was not consenting to sexual intercourse with Meester. She also had the presence of mind to be scared about possible pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases after Meester told her he had ejaculated. This understanding at the time the sexual intercourse occurred indicates that Woods was capable of understanding the act, its motive, and possible consequences. Furthermore, after the sexual acts occurred, Woods was able to dress herself and tie her own shoes…. Woods never appeared to be in distress and she never asked to leave the room. Throughout the sexual intercourse, Woods was aware that Wager was in the room, only three feet away from where she was, but never called upon him to render assistance.”
Gen. Weida refused to be interviewed for this story or to comment on why he disagreed with the IO’s findings and opted to court-martial Meester. He may have simply felt the IO was wrong, or that it was prudent to have the evidence considered again in court. Yet, both the Meester and Woods’ families suspect Weida’s motives are not that simple. They believe that Weida, under Roche’s tacit or explicit direction, is using them as pawns in a show trial. Meester is convinced that Air Force leaders want to see him convicted on at least one of the charges in the hope that it will satiate the public and politicians who have criticized the brass for inaction. Woods, says her mom, fears that Weida, under Roche’s direction, thrust her allegations into the spotlight now, so that defense lawyers can harp on the apparent murkiness of the case and attempt to destroy her credibility as a way to undermine all of the other allegations of sexual assault, as a way to intimidate other girls from coming forward, as a way to explain away why academy officials have been so slow to prosecute such allegations.
If Weida and Roche had such discussions about the case, it would constitute “unlawful command influence,” a serious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And at the hearing scheduled for this March, Meester intends to prove Weida is indeed guilty of the offense. The Meesters have hired Frank Spinner, an academy graduate and now a Colorado Srings attorney renowned for his success defending military clients, to work with the two Air Force lawyers Meester has been assigned. Spinner says he will call some of the academy’s former top officials, Weida, and a host of other military brass, including Air Force Secretary Roche. “I think they’ve got some explaining to do,” he says. “It seems to me that if the academy were really serious about change and sending the message that it’s cleaning up its act, they could have picked a better case than this one. They could have picked a slam dunk. Certainly, they had plenty to choose from.”
In 1993, the first year that the academy began keeping statistics for sexual assaults, 18 Air Force cadets reported being sexually assaulted. One female cadet that year claimed she was gang-raped by other cadets. In 1994, 14 allegations of sexual assault were reported at the academy. The General Accounting Office issued a report stating academy females were often “subject to unwanted touching, sexual harassment, and/or sexual assault.” According to the survey, one-third of the female cadets reported they were sexually assaulted by male cadets or knew someone who was; many women feared that if they reported the assaults to school officials that they would be disciplined or thrown out.
In 1995, the number of reported allegations of sexual assault increased to 17. In 1996, a year with 15 allegations of reported sexual assault, a high-level academy official sent a four-page memo to the Air Force Chief of Staff describing a culture of “silence and intimidation” that prevents more victims from coming forward; the official alleged that one victim of sexual assault was so traumatized that she slept with a weapon, and that another suffered vaginal injuries during an attack but was so fearful of what her academy peers and leaders might do if it became known that she reported the assault, she stayed quiet until she experienced “noticeable blood loss.”
During the next two years, there were 23 reported allegations of sexual assault. In an internal survey, 15 percent of academy women claimed to be victims of sexual assault. Throughout the next four years, 55 cadets reported being sexually assaulted or raped. Meanwhile, on campus, a misogynist slang was born. Female cadets were referred to as “cockpits” and “dorm mattresses.” An underground web-zine called eDodo.org appeared where current cadets and alums posted degrading cartoons and comments about female cadets, and took orders for T-shirts emblazoned with the academy logo and the phrase, “I am not a rapist.”
This misogyny was not born overnight. It was cultivated by an apparently indifferent leadership. Every three years, one academy superintendent ended his tour of duty without having to answer for the institutional problems he left behind, and a new one would come along promising change and trumpeting another program or strategy that would fail miserably.
One program, started in 1993, was a 24-hour academy hotline that sexual assault victims could call to report abuse or simply seek counseling. It was staffed by a student group called CASIE, or Cadets Advocating Sexual Integrity and Education. The night Woods’ brother got his sister’s instant message and ran to her dorm room, he brought with him a friend, a fellow senior cadet who was a member of CASIE. The CASIE rep assured Woods that if she reported the alleged rape she would be treated with sensitivity and not be punished for any offenses she may have committed during that night.
Two days after Woods spoke with OSI, she was removed from her room, separated from her dorm-mates, who had become her close friends, and transferred to another squadron where she knew no one. She got eight demerits and was informed she could be “disenrolled.” Notice of the reprimands came to her on “Form 10” documents; one began, “Cadet [Woods] committed numerous violations of Air Force Cadet Wing Code and Colorado state law. Her major violations that night included actively seeking alcohol in the cadet dorms, sexual activity in the dorms, and fraternization.”
Woods’ CASIE rep was so outraged at the academy leadership that he quit the program and wrote the brass a letter: “I should never have trusted the command representatives who repeatedly assured us that the program, and more importantly, the victim, would get the support needed in a time like this. In trusting them, I became part of the problem. It is my firm belief that the victim would be better off (both professionally and emotionally) today if she had never come forward. I cannot volunteer to support a policy of punishing victims for coming forward.”
In a memorandum Woods submitted to the academy leadership on Nov. 19, 2002 (exactly one month after she talked to OSI), she said she was “appalled” by the way she was treated. She cited information she’d culled from the website of a women’s crisis center: “Any action taken by police, co-workers, teachers, or family that makes the victim feel like a criminal is counterproductive.” She pointed out that experts on sexual assault emphasize victims are psychologically vulnerable. “I feel that I was ripped away from my support mechanisms and all of my friends…. I feel I am being punished as if I have committed a crime.”
Even Meester agrees that the academy “treated [Woods] wrongly” after she filed charges against him. “They basically cut her off from everyone she knew. If you make an allegation, I think the academy has a responsibility to take it seriously. I don’t blame them for taking me down to OSI and talking to me. Initially, I was told, ‘You’ll be out of here [the academy].’ I was told that right away. And I was told that for the next six weeks. I believe that the academy mishandled a lot of the cases and now they’re kind of paying for it.” He pauses, as the possible irony of it all occurs to him. “Actually, I guess I am.
“You know,” he says, “the thing is, like after a while you start saying, ‘Well I don’t know, maybe something happened I don’t remember. Maybe, you know, maybe, I’m wrong.’ As many times as I’ve played it over in my head – it was so not even a question in my mind. I never thought about it until the investigators told me she said it, that she was accusing me of it.” He furrows his brow, lowers his voice and adds, “I would kill a person if they raped my mother or my sister. I couldn’t imagine doing that to a person, ever.”
Meester has been trying to get on with his life. When we met, he was preparing to start classes at a Florida university, where he planned to double-major in economics and political science. His brush with the law, or at least the military’s version of it, has got him thinking he might want to be an attorney, that is, of course, if the court-martial panel finds him innocent. “Do I understand the significance of my case? Of course, because of all this, the scandal, generals have lost their careers, the academy will never be the same again. And here I am getting ready to leave for school in a few days knowing that after my first term, I’m going to court and may be sent to prison for the rest of my life for something I didn’t do.”
Woods has also set about remaking her future. She has moved to Texas to be with her boyfriend. Cuny quit the academy and is now among the Air Force’s enlisted personnel. If he hadn’t quit, it is very likely that he would have been kicked out. Woods’ sexual-assault medical exam found traces of two different DNA. One belonged to Meester, the other was Cuny’s. For the academy, that revelation alone was evidence that Cuny had broken the school’s fraternization policy.
Hoping for the best at trial, Marie Woods has been telling her daughter that by putting herself through the court-martial and taking the stand, “She might be serving her country in a more meaningful way than if she had graduated from the academy and become an officer. But she would have made one hell of an officer.”
The academy’s new superintendent is Gen. John Rosa. A graduate of the Citadel military institute, he is the first nonacademy alum to lead the school. His outsider perspective, so goes Secretary Roche’s reasoning, should finally bring change. Rosa has publicly pledged to beat the academy’s current woes. He has said, “We’re developing a campaign, just as we’ve done in Iraq.” Working with Brig. Gen. Weida, who has been appointed the Commandant of Cadets, Rosa has instituted an “Agenda For Change.” Together they are attempting to overhaul the culture, and specifically the academy’s methods for responding to reports of sexual assault. The infamous “Bring Me Men” sign has been torn down. The first four pages of the most recent Basic Cadet Training handbook cover: “Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment,” “Rape,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Forcible Sodomy,” “Indecent Assault,” and “Indecent Acts of Liberties with a Child.” Yet, since the new administration took control, 19 female cadets have reported being sexually assaulted, and the academy’s 2003 Social Climate Survey, the most recent survey, revealed that one in five academy males resents having women in the cadet wing. m
Maximillian Potter is 5280’s executive editor.