Conduct Unbecoming

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DAVID ZICKL FOR TIME

GROUNDED: Fullilove left the academy and now goes to U of Arizona

Sharon Fullilove plops down on the bed in her dorm room at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The walls, like those in college rooms everywhere, are plastered with pictures of friends and happy times, including a black-framed memorial to her hero, the Dell dude. It's a world away from the spare room she used to occupy at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. She never sat on the bed there; she didn't even sleep on it. Sheets had to be ironed perfectly for twice-weekly inspections, so like her fellow cadets, Fullilove simply slept on the floor. Yet she loved every moment of being there. "All I ever wanted to be was a bird and fly F-15s," she says. "Both my parents are Air Force. The Air Force Academy was the only place I even applied to for college. I wanted to show my patriotism and go to war."

Today all that's left of that dream is the bruising memory of a rape and the lingering anger over the academy's alleged failure to fully investigate her complaint, accusing her instead, she says, of being a "liar." Over the past month, at least 22 other women--13 former cadets and nine currently enrolled — have made similar charges, accusing academy officials not only of failing to investigate sexual assaults but of actively discouraging women from reporting them, and retaliating when they did. Yet in the past decade, only one academy cadet has been court-martialed on a rape charge; the cadet was acquitted. "It's the good-ole-boy society," says Fullilove. "The guy who did this to me knew nothing would happen to him."


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Spurred by the rising number of women speaking out, Air Force Secretary John Roche made a rare visit to the school last week to address 2,000 cadets, warning that he would "not tolerate" rapists or a culture that accepted sexual harassment at the academy. "There are now many questions about the character of all Air Force Academy cadets and recent graduates due to reported sexual assaults — clearly criminal acts — by a dangerous minority." He promised that "these bums" would be investigated and prosecuted. His trip followed a meeting with Colorado Senator Wayne Allard in Washington, who presented Roche with a list of nine questions about assault cases reported to his office since last summer.

Meanwhile, the Air Force's top general, John Jumper, told reporters in Washington that the process for reporting abuse was not working and that "intimidation in the chain of command" may have kept women silent. The Senate Armed Services Committee, on which Allard sits, is likely to push for a full hearing.

The new rape cases, first uncovered by the investigative unit at Denver's ABC affiliate KMGH, raise the question of whether the Tailhook sex-abuse scandal that hit the Navy in the early 1990s ever produced a new system capable of punishing men who commit these kinds of crimes. In 1993 the Air Force Academy launched a program touted as a model for teaching character, and three years later it instituted a rape-crisis hot line run by cadets. The academy claims fewer than 100 calls were placed to the hot line between 1996 and 2002, but this may be because some cadets went to civilian rape-crisis centers. A center in Colorado Springs says it has counseled at least 22 cadets over the past 15 years, including one who was gang-raped. In the past seven years, only 20 cases of sexual assault have been formally investigated at the school, leading to the dismissal of eight male cadets.

The level of disillusionment Fullilove feels matches the enthusiasm she felt as an 18-year-old high school senior from Dayton, Ohio, visiting the Air Force Academy for the first time in the spring of 1999. Only the best and brightest, the top 20% of their high school class, have a chance at admission. Fullilove was that and more. She was a straight-A student, a cheerleader, a hurdle jumper and a swim-team member. A dance champion by age 5, she choreographed her own routines, sang and did comedy. She was determined to follow in the footsteps of her mother, an Air Force lieutenant colonel with a 20-year career in biomedical research, and her stepdad, a reservist who regularly ships out to battle zones as a medical technician.

But Fullilove had been at the academy barely six months when her hopes were shattered. Shortly before Thanksgiving 1999, she joined some friends to watch the movie She's All That at Arnie's, a lecture hall hangout on the school grounds where no alcohol is allowed. As Fullilove and three girlfriends were leaving, an upperclassman they knew offered them a ride to their dorms. Fullilove was the last to be dropped off, but she trusted the male cadet; he had bailed her out of two infraction charges that eventually proved unfounded but could have resulted in her being expelled. So, she says, she wasn't even worried when he pulled over and locked the car doors. But, struggling now to hide her emotions like a good soldier, she sums up the moment she lost her virginity simply: "He forced himself on me. I tried to scream and fight, but of course everybody's in shape at the academy. Me against him was no fight."

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