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Hard corps: how to end sexual assault at military academies.

In April, I returned to the rainy Vermont campus of Norwich University, the nation's oldest private military college and birthplace of the R.O.T.C. program, which I'd attended as a cadet nearly three years before. The annual Junior Ring Ceremony was scheduled to take place in two short days, and three years' worth of anticipation was about to be released in a barrage of blank 75mm Pack Howitzer shells, the presentation of a treasure trove of enormous glittering rings, a six-hour dance in Plumely Armory, and by some long-awaited off-campus comradery. The members of the freshman "Rook" platoon with whom I'd shared the first few months of my cadet experience--the two dozen men and women of Golf Company, Second Platoon, Class of 2004--had rented a condo for the weekend in the ski-resort town of Rutland about an hour's drive south of campus--along with several other Norwich platoons. On Saturday night, proudly sporting their new rings and after dancing at the ball, most of the platoon gathered there.

At some point in the night, one of the men from my platoon wandered over to another platoon's condo to hang out. While there, Cadet "Garcia" had been opening" various doors, drunkenly searching for a bathroom, when he came across a young woman he didn't recognize, passed out on a bed in the dark, alone. He lay down next to her and starred to touch her sexually. As it happened, she was not deeply unconscious--only snoozing--and she woke up to discover that the man accosting her was an intoxicated stranger and not her cadet husband. She called out for her husband who immediately phoned the police, and within an hour the local authorities bad arrived to arrest Garcia on a sexual assault charge.

At Norwich, as at any military college, rumors travel faster than a .30 caliber round. Two of my Rook buddies decided to host a "Rookie Meeting" in their room the following night, and called everyone from our platoon on campus to attend. No one missed the meeting who could have been them. About 15 of us assembled hi the two-person room, closed the door, and began to talk. It was a sobering conversation; if Garcia's attitudes and behavior towards women had been unique within the platoon, we could simply have condemned him and moved on. But they were not: I had heard cadets tell stories in the past about sex with passed-out or intoxicated women, stories which were meant to be humorous. The men in these incidents may have understood that such behavior was morally suspect, but they certainly wouldn't have called it rape. Faced with Garcia's arrest for an otherwise seemingly trivial act, we started to confront our own complicity. One of the men present had the courage to put it this way: "The fact is, there are probably four of you here that I would trust to be in a room alone with my sister. And I hate that---I hate that about us." I could see some of the men glancing around the room as he said this, forming their own short mental tallies of those in whom they would dare place such a trust. We may have all been "buddies," but we also knew that not all our buddies shared the same set of values when it came to sexual decision-making and the understanding of what constitutes a sexual assault.

It would have been too awkward for any of us to have shared the names on our lists with each other, but I like to think my buddies' lists would have included my name. I was a full-time graduate student in the department of sociology. at the University of Chicago when, with the support of the Norwich administration and the notification of its Corps of Cadets, I had enrolled as a 30-year-old freshman recruit in the fall of 2000. I was to have the same experiences there as all other cadets while gathering material for my dissertation on gender, institutions, and emotion management. The Housing Office found me a compatible 17-year old roommate with whom I would share living space in the barracks. I participated in the Navy R.O.T.C. program and attended undergraduate classes, and on the night of Dec. 11, 2000, I was recognized as a Norwich cadet along with the rest of the Class of 2004 in a ceremony which was genuinely one of the proudest moments of my adult life. As a doctoral student, I was nicknamed "Doc," and I became a part of the corps' social fabric. But like many cadets I also grew deeply ambivalent about Norwich: I loved the corps, but behavior like Garcia's was one of the things I hated also. It was a malignancy within male-cadet identity.

The general public has only recently been made aware of the degree of the sexual-assault problem within military academies, a problem which administrators have been confronting since the academies decided to enroll women in 1976. This past spring, a female cadet at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs told authorities she had been assaulted outside the campus gymnasium. The case was well publicized, and other victims began to come forward; the Air Force Academy is now confronting claims by 61 current and former cadets that they were sexually assaulted while they were enrolled at the school over the past 20 years. The male cadets in these scenarios engaged in sexual blackmail, systematically abused the cadet power structure, and used alcohol to make their victims pass out before taking advantage of them. Air Force officials at the Academy who reviewed these claims ultimately decided that only a slim minority warranted any action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and many of the cases that passed this test resulted in only administrative forms of punishment for the attackers. The charges triggered an investigation by the Department of Defense's Inspector General whose report, issued last month, revealed a gruesome litany of rapes at the academy. Over the last 20 years, the IG found, 12 percent of all female cadets enrolled there had been raped. Worse, the IG's report noted that the Academy's administration had ignored the problems; for the first 20 years of gender integration the Air Force Academy did not even maintain records of reported assaults.

The Air Force Academy scandals have received an extensive public airing, and Sens. Wayne Al]ard (R-Colo.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have successfully pressed for some reforms, from character development training to improved night-time monitoring of cadet behavior; negligent commanders have already been replaced. These are necessary and positive steps, but by themselves they may still prove inadequate because they miss a crucial point: The real root of the pervasive sexual assault problems of military academies lies not with the administration or with the programs it implements, bur within the minds of the cadets themselves.

The military academies have integrated women into their cadet corps, but they have yet to produce a corresponding change in the essential nature of the corps--its values, its ideals, and its behavior. As I saw at Norwich, cadet culture is defined by an amplified masculinity whose more noble values--service to one's country, performance of duty under pressure, and the emphasis of team success over personal achievement--are sometimes offset by chronic patterns of rule-breaking, gratuitous physical abuse, and drinking to the point of self-oblivion. Serious change in the military academies will only be possible when administrators confront that aspect of cadet culture itself which promotes anachronistic ideas of gender-relations and undermines administrative efforts to reform them.

Made to be broken

The freshman year at any military college is designed to be a test of physical, mental, and emotional limits. The Class of 2004 began its freshman year at Norwich by standing in a tense and silent formation on the campus Upper Parade Ground dressed in the mandatory "Rookie storm" uniform: black shoes, tan slacks, white dress t-shirt, black neck tie, and maroon baseball cap embroidered with the word "ROOK" in large gold letters. Soon, AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" began to toll slowly and ominously through the campus loudspeakers. As the 12th toll sounded, the Norwich artillery unit fired a jarring cannon blast that signaled the arrival of a swarm of upperclassmen instructors called "cadre." They poured out of the barracks and began the process of adversative training which would make life in my platoon extremely difficult. The nine men and one woman assigned to train Golf Company became both our deeply respected leaders and our ruthlessly hostile enemies. They put us to bed by kicking our garbage cans into our rooms, and woke us up by pounding on our doors with clenched fists.

The Corps of Cadets at Norwich consists of about 1,000 individuals, approximately 15 percent of them female and virtually all between the ages of 17 and 23. It is overwhelmingly white, though 20 percent of nay own platoon was native Spanish speaking. Alcohol consumption was par for the course, though a few members of my own platoon were avowed non-drinkers. The men and women who make up the corps live on the Norwich campus in barracks rooms next to each other, attend academic classes together, and conduct all military training together. Signs on the doors of the latrines warning of a "Class-One Offense" signal the only. place where the corps mandates gender segregation, but adherence to even this regulation is sometimes lax. Norwich was the nation's first military school to admit women to its Corps of Cadets, and in '97 became the first to have a female cadet as its Regimental Commander. If there is a vanguard in gender relations among military schools, Norwich is it.

Which is not to say that things at Norwich are gender-neutral or that its women do not feel the strains of tokenism. Male cadets still teach each other by example that it is okay to approach an unconscious, possibly drunk woman and attempt to have sex with her. In this sense, Garcia had been following a script he had come to believe was acceptable. But Garcia was just clumsy enough to pick a married woman and the wife of another cadet as his target. I am certain he thought he had not done anything unusual or wrong until the moment the police arrived and placed him in custody, and I can imagine him deeply confused as they escorted him away for committing a sexual assault.

That April, my platoon still had four of its original six women (one woman left at the end of her first week as a recruit, saying that she believed Rookdom would interfere with her ability to perform academically; another left at the end of the first semester citing a number of issues including a damaged ankle). As the details of the assault in Rutland became dear, I wondered what these women might say given the opportunity to address their wayward Rook Brothers. But during the Rookie Meeting, all four of the women carefully kept quiet, and only while thinking about this weeks afterwards did I feel I accurately understood why: military school is not a place that welcomes feminist critiques of inappropriate male behavior. Further, women, by virtue of their gender, are always at risk of becoming labeled as disruptive and confrontational and--even worse--"feminist" if they indicate that they disapprove of the things the men around them do. Instead, they learn to shake their heads in silence because the social costs of speaking up are simply too large: becoming ostracized at military school is a social death sentence for men and women alike. When the men start speaking up--when they as a class finally start saying those things which the women cannot--then the climate for change becomes hospitable.

Of course, assaults like those at Norwich and the Air Force Academy are not unique to military schools. Date rape is endemic to colleges of every size and academic purpose, and it frequently goes hand in hand with alcohol: Young men and women get together and drink, inhibitions and good judgment succumb to desire, and seemingly innocent gestures of attraction become grounds for stained reputations and expulsions. What is different in the military school setting, however, is the extent to which such a script is emphasized and validated: Masculinity is often defined in part by sexual performance, and military schools offer young men the opportunity for masculine certification like few other institutions. They officially test military beating, the limits of strength and speed, the ability to perform under enormous pressure, and skill at concealing emotions (both negative and positive). This package also includes an unofficial emphasis on other, less-savory aspects of masculinity, including demonstrations of heterosexual conquest.

The administration at Norwich fights a steady battle against the behavior of many of its cadets. Despite the severe consequences for possession, the campus floats on a contraband bed of alcohol. Cadets regularly put themselves, their undergraduate careers, and their commissions as officers on the line by indulging in it. For the first "Violation of the Alcohol Policy" (abbreviated "V.A.P." and called "a vap") Norwich cadets are subject to several weeks of close military confinement, loss of all cadet rank, and more than two dozen tours: each tour is one hour of monotonous pacing on the Campus Upper Parade Ground while wearing a class-A uniform and bearing a nine-pound M-14 rifle at right-shoulder arms. If caught twice, a cadet faces dismissal from the school and loss of federal commission. Every year, some cadets take these chances and lose: During my freshman experience, two of the campus' five notorious Command Sergeants Major (the campus' highest ranking juniors anti the bulldogs of the corps) were humiliatingly demoted after one such incident, and they were neither the first nor the last cadets demoted that year. The awkwardness of their demotion did more to foster a sense of bitterness between the corps and the administration, however, than it did to affect the consumption of alcohol.

As with alcohol, so with sex: At the end of nay first week of freshman training, my cadre explicitly told my platoon that sex between platoon members was a strictly forbidden act, as was sex between freshmen and upperclassmen--within a month, both rules had been broken. The intention of those involved was to circumvent the seemingly frivolous rule, and since cadet life is replete with such rules, cadets quickly become resourceful at circumventing them.

Norwich University maintains on its staff a Title IX coordinator whose full-time job is to monitor and advise the school on its gender environment. However, unlike many members of the administration, the woman who held this position during my tenure as a cadet had never served in the military, did not wear a uniform, was not involved in any of the physical aspects of cadet training, and was manifestly unfamiliar with cadet values and culture. In a setting where symbols of authority have enormous importance, she appeared in the minds of the cadets to lack them all: They were required to listen to her lectures on equal opportunity and gender equally, but did so with low-voiced, mocking incredulity and complete dismissal. Contrast her to another campus figure of that year, the man who headed the Norwich Navy/Marine Corps R.O.T.C. department. This colonel's impeccable uniform, combat service in the Marines, truly superhuman physicality in spite of his near-retirement age, and awe-inspiring presence made him a campus figure of mythical proportions known to the entire corps--he was deeply respected, honored, even feared, mad when he spoke cadets would listen with rapt attention. He was the antithesis of the Title IX coordinator.

Eyes wide shut

There are two ways the academies can facilitate changes in cadet culture: They can seek to change the kind of people they choose to admit, and they can try to modify the socialization experience of those who enter. Obviously, arriving at a one-to-one ratio of men to women would have dramatic effects, but the fact is only a small number of women are interested in military education--even at Norwich, with its tradition of progressive attitudes towards women and the 1995 implementation of an innovative recruitment campaign targeted at potential female candidates. Preventative education programs and sexual-assault awareness training can have some impact, hut only if handled sensitively and carried out by respected senior officials.

Useful examples from other American institutions that have endured a similarly rough transition away from all-male environments are sparse, in large part because there are few other settings like military universities which are so defined by a set of masculine values. Police and fire departments, however, may represent the closest approximations: Their experiences in the 1970s and 1980s, while not promising certain success, suggest why at least some of these institutions have been able to change their cultures while others have not.

One famous example comes from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Despite a 1993 court order to change unprofessional working conditions in the department, four years later the LASD was still found to have done little or nothing to correct them. One of the plaintiff's attorneys in the case even suggested that the order's only effect was to generate increased tension and resentment between male and female officers. Another called the court order an "abysmal failure." Subsequent incidents where female deputies had become the subject of rude jokes and ridicule and had found sex toys and pornographic Polaroids in their patrol cars were clear indications that the underlying masculine culture had not changed. Fire departments around the country have faced similar hurdles, but a study done by the RAND Corporation in 1993 found that the smooth integration of female firefighters depended in large part upon the vocal and public leadership of the department's Chief Officers, and sexual harassment appeared to be more frequent in those departments that had not seen forceful advocacy from their leadership.

While these strategies offer some guidance, however, the solution for military colleges is unlikely to be as intuitive. Certainly the most senior administrators must emphatically and repeatedly tell their cadets that sexual assaults will not be tolerated, and must consistently impose appropriate punishments on offenders, but simply making these penalties more severe may have small effect on the actual problems, though the fair and even evaluation of individual claims of assault would be a start--something which was not practiced in the past by the now-replaced leadership at the Air Force Academy.

Officers and gentlemen

The search for the solution to the problem begins with an understanding of the dual university-leadership structures of adult administrators and the upperclassmen who often wield vast but subtle influence. An important part of the creed of military schools holds that the interaction between more senior and more junior cadets is what models and prepares them for commissioned life in the military, but this relationship also allows cadets to resist administrative efforts to alter the nature of the corps. When the administration tells students that drinking is not permitted, the cadets hear from upperclassmen that there is a long tradition of delicately circumventing this particular rule; when the administration tells students that sexual assault is unacceptable, they hear from juniors and seniors that having sex with passed-out girls is actually okay. In both of these cases the cadets often adopt, through a simple logic, older peers rather than administrators as the acceptable model for their own understanding of what it means to be a cadet.

Exclusive administrative use of new carrot-and-stick strategies to change such behaviors from the top down is likely to lead to a dead end. Educational seminars and training sessions designed to initiate changes in behavior from the bottom up will hit resistance from a cadet culture which has its own deeply held masculine values and an established and efficient system for transmitting them. The objective needs to be to turn cadets into gentlemen--gentlemen who do not engage in blind inebriation as a form of entertainment and who do not consider women to be objects of male sexual convenience. But while cadets may often ignore those regulations which conflict with the extant masculine value system, they also regularly adopt formally prescribed yet functionally useless behaviors of cadet life with enthusiasm. One of these prescriptions is actually a ritualistic pro-scription involving some red bricks.

Set flush into the ground directly in front of the entrance to the 1993 Kreitzberg Library on the Norwich campus is a small collection of red bricks arranged in a square. During Rook Week, the cadre of each freshman platoon bring their charges to these bricks and explain that they are all that is left of the Old South Barracks. The cadre also explain that no cadet entering or leaving the library ever deliberately steps on these bricks, and if one watches cadets leave or enter the library at any hour of the day or night, in a group or alone, Norwich cadets always step around the bricks. There are no consequences for failing to do so, no regulation protecting the bricks, and a cadet whose foot slips is unlikely to be chastised by his peers. All that protects the bricks is the fact that Norwich cadets are not supposed to step on them--and the behavior is self-reinforcing because it has become part of the definition of what it means to be a cadet at Norwich.

Respect for bricks is not the same as respect for women or respect for sexual boundaries, but the behavior suggests a crucial transferability. If the definition of a cadet can be remade to actually include such values rather than merely to render them lip service, then the incidence of sexual assault in military schools can only go down.

On the Monday after the Junior Ring Ball, I packed my bags and got ready to leave Norwich. While my two Rook buddies were in class, I combed the room for stray clothing and misplaced toiletries. As I did this, I suddenly realized that the decor of the room had experienced a small but critical change--a change that forced me to smile amidst all the weekend's sadness and drama. And as I left the room, I felt a renewed sense of hope, an unanticipated confirmation that the Norwich Corps of Cadets is still worth loving in spite of its many problems, that regardless all of the machismo, the men of my platoon--many of whom will become U.S. officers within the next year--are fully capable of introspection and change with respect to how they view women. And all I could think as I walked to my car was, He figured it out! He actually figured it out! Sometime earlier in the day, in my absence and with no encouragement from me, one of my buddies had taken down the picture of the woman in uniform and lingerie which had been taped to his wall locker, and had replaced it with a picture of his swim team.

Kirby D. Schroeder is a university of Chicago doctoral student in sociology.
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Author:Schroeder, Kirby D.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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