E-mail Message Prompts Inquiry into Air Force Academy Sexual Assaults

An e-mail message alleging a pattern of sexual assaults at the U.S. Air Force Academy and official cover-ups of the assaults prompted a series of investigations and changes in academy policy. The response to the scandal, while substantive, was the subject of controversy and drew criticism both from those who found it excessive and those who considered it insufficient.

Summary of Event

On January 2, 2003, the undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force, James Roche, received an e-mail from a person using the name Trindle, Renee Renee Trindle, alleging a pervasive pattern of sexual assaults at the Air Force Academy. The e-mail, which also claimed the sexual assaults were covered up and ignored by academy leadership, was copied to several prominent government officials and journalists, including the chief of staff of the Air Force and U.S. senator Wayne Allard of Colorado. The media began reporting the assaults. Subsequent investigations by the Air Force and the U.S. Congress revealed that numerous sexual assaults indeed had occurred at the academy and that administrators tried to conceal the offenses by intimidating victims and witnesses and by shielding academy staff. [kw]Air Force Academy Sexual Assaults, E-mail Message Prompts Inquiry into (Jan. 2, 2003)
[kw]Sexual Assaults, E-mail Message Prompts Inquiry into Air Force Academy (Jan. 2, 2003)
Air Force Academy, U.S.
Allard, Wayne
Fowler, Tillie
Sexual harassment;at military academies[military academies]
Air Force Academy, U.S.
Allard, Wayne
Fowler, Tillie
Sexual harassment;at military academies[military academies]
[g]United States;Jan. 2, 2003: E-mail Message Prompts Inquiry into Air Force Academy Sexual Assaults[03260]
[c]Sex crimes;Jan. 2, 2003: E-mail Message Prompts Inquiry into Air Force Academy Sexual Assaults[03260]
[c]Military;Jan. 2, 2003: E-mail Message Prompts Inquiry into Air Force Academy Sexual Assaults[03260]
[c]Government;Jan. 2, 2003: E-mail Message Prompts Inquiry into Air Force Academy Sexual Assaults[03260]
[c]Communications and media;Jan. 2, 2003: E-mail Message Prompts Inquiry into Air Force Academy Sexual Assaults[03260]
[c]Education;Jan. 2, 2003: E-mail Message Prompts Inquiry into Air Force Academy Sexual Assaults[03260]
[c]Ethics;Jan. 2, 2003: E-mail Message Prompts Inquiry into Air Force Academy Sexual Assaults[03260]
Roche, James G.
Rumsfeld, Donald
Teets, Peter B.

The allegations, which surfaced nearly twenty-seven years after women were first admitted to the Air Force Academy, closely resembled similar allegations involving other branches of the U.S. military. Female naval officers were sexually assaulted and harassed at the 1991 convention of the Tailhook Association Tailhook Association—an organization comprising active and former U.S. Navy pilots—in Las Vegas. At the Aberdeen Proving Ground Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in 1996, twelve male U.S. Army officers were arrested for sexual assault. The Tailhook and Aberdeen scandals had focused upon the conduct of small groups of people over a relatively short duration, whereas the allegations emerging from the Air Force Academy suggested a longstanding and pervasive pattern of institutional corruption that began with the commission of criminal acts and progressed to a conspiracy to conceal those acts.

Following the receipt of the e-mail, Roche directed the Air Force general counsel to form a working group to investigate the matter. The group submitted an interim report to Roche in March, 2003, leading the Air Force to implement its “Agenda for Change” on March 26. The agenda made changes to life at the academy that would make it “consistent with the Air Force concepts of no tolerance for sexual assault.” The working group submitted its final report on June 17.

Roche also directed the Air Force inspector general’s office (IGO) to investigate the allegations. Inquiries formed outside the Air Force as well. The secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, at congressional urging, formed a seven-member panel under the leadership of Allard and former U.S. representative Tillie Fowler of Florida. In February, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Defense, at the request of the Senate Armed Services Committee, began its inquiry. The complaints reviewed by the Fowler panel, as it came to be called, had been submitted by female cadets who attended the academy between 1993 and 2003. According to these complaints, the assaults took place primarily in student dormitories and typically involved upperclass male cadets and freshman and sophomore female cadets. Male cadets reportedly often provided female cadets with alcohol in violation of academy policy and, following the assaults, would blackmail their victims into remaining silent by threatening to reveal their violations of alcohol policy to administrators. Cadets who reported the attacks allegedly were ignored and then often disciplined for offenses that included alcohol violations and fraternization (with the cadets who also were their assailants). Many who filed complaints had withdrawn from the academy. The Fowler panel issued its report on September 22 and also held that the general counsel’s working group might have shielded top academy staff from accountability in the assaults.

Investigations revealed that approximately 12 percent of the female graduates of the 2003 academy class had reported that they had been sexually assaulted or faced an attempted sexual assault while attending the academy. An estimated 20 percent of all female cadets who attended the academy within the ten-year period in question had been sexually assaulted during their time at the academy. Many of the alleged assailants, like their alleged victims, failed to graduate. In a survey conducted in 2004, more than three hundred respondents reported that they had been sexually assaulted, and nearly two-thirds indicated that they had not reported the assaults.

The investigations produced a wave of negative publicity for the academy, the Air Force, and the military as a whole. Public opinion of the scandal was divided; many believed that the allegations were overblown or that the academy was being unfairly targeted for behavior equally prevalent in civilian colleges and universities; yet others viewed the scandal as a continuation of a pattern of abuse in the U.S. military. Many public officials reacted to the scandal with anger; Allard and other lawmakers harshly criticized Roche when he appeared before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee to testify about the allegations. Groups such as the Miles Foundation, which advocates for victims of sexual trauma in the military, were equally adamant in demanding widespread changes in academy and military policy to deter further sexual assaults and hold administrators and supervisors accountable for investigating complaints and disciplining offenders.

Although the investigations confirmed allegations of a longstanding pattern of sexual assaults, the reports issued by the respective investigatory committees stopped short of recommending harsh consequences for academy leadership. The Air Force IGO report, issued on September 14, 2004, and the Defense Department’s OIG report, issued on December 3, made several recommendations for the prevention of future assaults, including a procedure for confidential reporting, improved access to counseling and medical care, and a strict protocol for investigating sexual assault allegations. Although the committees’ findings appeared to confirm allegations that the victim reports had been mishandled, the findings also showed agreement that academy administrators had acted reasonably and legally in their responses to the victim reports. The committees suggested that the mishandling of the victim complaints was due primarily to failures in policy and procedure rather than the negligence or willful misconduct of administrators.

The conclusions of investigators and the response of the Air Force to the scandal met with criticism from within and outside the U.S. military and government. Critics alleged that many of the officials who were disciplined had little or no actual role in the scandal; one officer who was forced into retirement had joined the administration of the academy following the time period under investigation and had been employed at the institution for only two months. Many of the administrators involved retired voluntarily before disciplinary measures could be taken against them. Roche retired in January, 2005, in the light of unrelated allegations of misconduct and was replaced by Peter B. Teets, who in a memorandum to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld in early 2005 advised against pursuing criminal charges against Air Force officers implicated in the scandal. Teets suggested that the officers had acted in “good faith” and were not derelict in their duties. Although Allard, other members of Congress, and victims’ advocacy groups expressed dissatisfaction with the memorandum, neither Rumsfeld nor any other official authorized or initiated additional action against the accused officers.


The scandal and the resulting investigation led to the implementation of new policies on reporting and investigating sexual assaults at the Air Force Academy. Even with these policy changes, lingering questions remain regarding the willingness and ability of the U.S. armed services to adapt to social change and to balance a culture emphasizing loyalty and obedience with the need to address internal problems involving corruption and misconduct.

Although subsequent reports and other evidence indicate that the service academies have made progress in deterring and prosecuting sexual assaults, other evidence, including numerous reports of sexual assaults upon active-duty female troops serving in Iraq War Iraq and Afghanistan, indicate that sexual assaults still occur in the U.S. military. Air Force Academy, U.S.
Allard, Wayne
Fowler, Tillie
Sexual harassment;at military academies[military academies]

Further Reading

  • “Air Force Ignored Academy Abuse.” The New York Times, September 23, 2003. Contains a synopsis of the Fowler panel’s report and reactions to the report immediately following its release.
  • Higgins, M. “The Air Force Academy Scandal: Will the ’Agenda for Change’ Counteract the Academy’s Legal and Social Deterrents to Reporting Sexual Harassment and Assault?” Women’s Rights Law Reporter 26, nos. 2-3 (2005): 121-138. Examines the effect of the academy’s “Agenda for Change,” implemented by the Air Force at the height of the sexual assault scandal.
  • Hunter, Mic. Honor Betrayed: Sexual Abuse in America’s Military. Fort Lee, N.J.: Barricade Books, 2007. A social history of the masculinist culture of the U.S. military and that culture’s tolerance for sexual abuse. Begins with “Why It Happens” and includes chapters on “the code of hypermasculinity,” hazing, domestic violence, and women in the military. Ends with first-person accounts.
  • “Pentagon Sets New Policy on Reporting Sexual Assaults at Academies.” The New York Times, March 19, 2005. Briefly describes changes in the sexual assault policies of U.S. military academies.
  • Smallwood, William L., and Sue Ross. The Air Force Academy Candidate Book: How to Get In, How to Prepare, How to Survive. Monument, Colo.: Silver Horn Books, 2007. A guide for prospective Air Force cadets that details the academy’s policies and procedures on sexual assault and related issues.
  • Thomas, Cathy Booth. “The Air Force Academy’s Rape Scandal.” Time, March 6, 2003. Journalistic account of the scandal that provides a synopsis of key events and the perspectives of victims.

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