ONE MONTH INTO the Air Force Academy scandal, top brass could not be more contrite about the 56 women, so far, who claim to have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. "We have to get these bums out of here," Air Force Secretary James G. Roche said about the accused rapists to a standing ovation at a recent symposium on character and leadership. Then last week at a news conference he hinted at changes designed to protect women from sexual assault and to make them feel comfortable about reporting it if it happens.
All well and good, except that the whole incident feels like a replay of what happened in 1993 at the academy and throughout the decade at other military academies. Every few years a group of women has come forward to report such mistreatment at a military institution. The leaders declare themselves shocked and dismayed and then set up a series of programs, only to have it happen again. After the 1993 incidents, the Air Force Academy revised its sexual assault policies and set up a program called Cadets Advocating Sexual Integrity and Education, which included a 24-hour hotline and an advocate assigned to each case. They encouraged women to report cases to the Office of Special Investigations or through their chain of command. Still, a survey in January showed that half of all female cadets would not feel comfortable reporting an assault. Now, once again, the academy finds itself in scandal.
So it's fine that the Air Force and the Defense Department have launched separate investigations, and it's fine that Mr. Roche promises "major change . . . across the board" -- but let it be real this time. The hints he has dropped so far are not encouraging. Segregating women within the dormitories, which he suggested, might help somewhat but also smacks of paternalism and a reversal of progress that some women might object to. His vow to consider all cases criminal and to throw out the "bum rapists" has a hint of the excessive and usually unproductive self-flagellation that often strikes the military at these moments. It's an unfortunate fact that rape and sexual assault are difficult to prove; the military's responsibility is only to facilitate the truth. Some of what's needed is straightforward and simple: making sure there is a nurse on campus trained in administering a rape kit, often the only useful evidence in such cases. But the academy has had many of the necessary structures in place since 1993. What it has to tackle now is more difficult and entrenched: the culture that is keeping women silent or blocking what seem to be legitimate cases.
On that matter the academy has fallen short. In public meetings, Mr. Roche has defended Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III, the academy commandant. But if any of what he is reported to have said is true, he is an excellent example of the culture problem. He is said to have told one female cadet who reported being raped after she had been at a party: "If I walk down a dark alley with hundred-dollar bills hanging out of my pocket, it doesn't justify my being attacked or robbed, but I certainly increase the risk by doing what I did." And yet Gen. Gilbert is leading one of the internal investigations. That might be the first thing to change.