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The Air Force Academy's year of reform

Revelations of assault not only shook the school to its core, but spurred radical change.

Here on the Air Force Academy's expansive campus, in the shadow of the Rampart Range, there aren't many outward signs of the cultural sea change that's occurring.

Clean-cut cadets, dressed in blue uniforms, head purposefully to class or the playing fields. There's little free time, and seniors (or first-degrees, in Academy jargon) still complain, as they've always done, that the entering class has it easier than they did.

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This year, though, some things are different. For starters, this year's entering class is the first since 1964 not to enter the gates beneath the old sign exhorting: "Bring Me Men." They no longer spend hours marching on the tour pad or doing push-ups as punishment. They brandish cellphones, and they had to "run the strip" and carry their bookbag off their shoulder only for the autumn, instead of all the way through March.

It's a kinder, gentler Air Force Academy - in some ways, at least - just one year after a sexual-assault scandal sent shock waves through this campus, forcing resignations of the top leadership and a flurry of congressional and military investigations. When it came out last year that scores of cadets claimed to have been assaulted since 1993 - and, perhaps worse, that those in charge typically punished the victims rather than the perpetrators - a lot of ink went to dissecting academy culture, particularly its hazing and subordination systems

It's too soon to tell if the changes will work: Cultural shifts take decades, not months. Recent accusations about rape among active troops - including the Air Force in the Pacific, and at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, and troops in the Persian Gulf - only underscore the enormity of the military's task. Critics worry that the academy's response is just another surface job, and point to elements, like confidentiality for victims, that are still missing. But it's striking how much has changed in a year, starting with a leadership that acknowledges the depth of the problem.

"We're real early in the journey," acknowledges Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, the commandant of cadets, who came to the academy last April. "We're very optimistic, and hopeful for the future, but we're realists. We need to manage expectations." When he arrived at the academy last April, he first tried to discover how widespread the problem really was. What he discovered, he says, is that it was not only systemic, "it was broader than sexual assault or sexual harassment."

Hence the changes, not just on rape response, but on push-ups.

Wes Spurlock, a squadron commander from Riverside, Calif., who plans to go to pilot training in Georgia when he graduates this spring, says the new system has had a big effect on his leadership style: "Last year, if I had four-degrees [freshmen] messing up, I could just yell at them, have them out doing push-ups. Now I have to get them to want to be better."

He describes a typical scenario - making morning rounds of the dorm rooms and finding one that fails inspection. A year ago, he might have had the cadet pick up his rifle, head to the tour pad, and march in a circle for 10 hours, without considering extenuating circumstances. This year, says Mr. Spurlock, he'll sit down and talk to the cadet. If it becomes a repeat problem, then a paper trail of disciplinary letters will follow the cadet, even into the Air Force. "It's harder, it takes more time," he says. "I have to walk around and talk to people. But you do get to know people better. I've learned more about these cadets" in his new squadron "than the squadron I was in for two years."

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Most cadets like the cultural changes - punishments no longer seem as meaningless and the disciplinary system is more in line with the actual military's - even as they say the sexual assault problem isn't as great as the outside world seems to think.

"There were a lot of talks - 'Don't go off into the woods with someone after Taps' - common-sense stuff," says Jordan Wilhelm, an upbeat blond freshman from Mason, Ohio, who's wanted to go to a military academy since eighth grade. To her, many of those warnings "felt like overkill."

It's not surprising that some cadets are defensive: Last spring they not only saw their school ripped apart in the media, they also faced judgment closer to home. Some local restaurants asked them to leave; cars bearing academy stickers got keyed and egged; and some juniors hoping to bring high school sweethearts in for the spring dance found the women's parents refused to let them attend.

But investigations also showed the scandal's real scope. One Pentagon study found that 18 percent of female cadets were assaulted at the academy, but only 20 percent of those reported it. Another survey found that 1 in 5 male cadets say women don't belong at the academy.

At this point, no one is a bigger advocate that the culture needs to change than General Weida. He rattles off the problems, and statistics about rape and sexual assault, with the earnest air of the recently converted. He's the first to admit the academy - even the Pentagon - doesn't have all the answers, which is why he, together with new superintendent Lt. Gen. John Rosa, and vice commandant Col. Debra Gray have called in everyone from academics to rape awareness advocates to help. Bringing other leaders on board hasn't been easy either, but Weida says most are starting to buy in. And in the 11 months he's been there, he's been able to implement most of the 122 action items on his list from the Pentagon's "Agenda for Change" that was developed last spring.

"Those at the top have been sponges for information, very willing to learn and very dedicated to making changes that will make things better for the victims," says Anne Munch, director of the Ending Violence Against Women project in Boulder, Colo., and an outside trainer who's spent a lot of time on the academy campus this past year. "If it comes from the top down, I think that's one of the main indicators of whether there will be long-term change."

She and others agree that one of the most important changes has been the development of the Academy Response Team, or ART - an assault-reporting procedure that teams victims up with trained liaisons who can help connect them to any other support people she needs. Weida any other support she needs. Weida is especially encouraged by the increase in assault reports (21 since April, 9 of them dealing with prior attacks), which he sees as a sign not of more assaults, but of more women feeling comfortable coming forward. And this year, a record number of women - nearly 35 percent more than last year - applied to the academy.

Many, of course, are still skeptical. Even with ART, cadets have no confidentiality guarantee when they come forward - an element most rape experts agree is pivotal and that Weida says is still being worked out by the Pentagon.

And all the new rules are virtually meaningless without fundamental changes in the military's policy for handling assault, says Christine Hansen, director of the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit in Newtown, Conn., that examines domestic abuse and sexual assault in the military. Ms. Hansen would like to see a new office, for the victim advocate, created at the Pentagon - one which, like the chaplaincy, would have a separate chain of command.

"Unless you have a foundation on which to build," she says, "you can do as much training as you want, but a military commander is still required to rely upon the Uniform Code of Military Justice and manual for court martial, which hasn't been updated since the 1950s."

Until those larger changes come about, though, the culture at the academy is slowly shifting. Senior Phaedra Shamp isn't happy about all the new rules - like the fact she can no longer have her fiancé and fellow cadet in her room with the door closed - but thinks most changes have been positive. Women, now clustered together in dorms, are more supportive of each other, and discipline is more logical. "People are thinking more about their behavior having an effect on other people," she says. "And not just in terms of sexual assault."