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FEATURE | summer 2003

Might and Right in Colorado Springs

Ms. Summer 2003

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The first time I saw Colorado Springs I wan on a high school trip up to the big city of Denver. I wanted to stop at the U.S. Air Force Academy on the way and notify them of my intention to enroll as soon as possible.

I had weighed the benefits: My mother was an ex-WAF, and by age six I knew how to salute and crisply recite 'yes ma'am, no ma'am, no excuses ma'am.'The Air Force had given Mom money for college, allowing her to become the first woman in her family to graduate.

My school counselor had arranged a meeting with the admissions officer. It was brief. There was talk of math and push-ups, neither of my strong suits, but what really got me was imagining life as a cadet: My freedom to do anything I wanted to would be quite limited.

So the Air Force Academy was out.

I am thinking of all this as I drive the same stretch of interstate recently to pay a visit. This time as I come upon the entrance to the Air Force Academy, an electronic sign flashes amber letters: VISITOR CENTER CLOSED.

Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images

The headlines generated by the academy this year have been enough to make it close ranks: 56 reports of sexual assault or rape of female cadets over the last decade, only now being investigated; only three attackers brought to military trial, none found guilty. In eight other cases since 1996, mate cadets have been punished "administratively"--restricted at the academy or expelled.

But now, because a few women finally broke the code and went outside the academy walls with their stories, all hell, to use the technical term, has broken loose. The media is all over the story and at least four cadets are being charged with sexual assault.

There have been Congressional hearings and heads have rolled. The former commander, "Taco" Gilbert, was transferred to the Pentagon, replaced by Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, a former pilot and a "strong Christian leader." Weida put a letter on the academy website promising to kill the virulence of this problem with a three-pronged attack he describes as "culture, communication and commitment."

Cari Davis and Jennifer Bier of TESSA, Colorado Springs' domestic abuse and rape crisis center, work out of a boxy, cement building with small windows behind high chain-link fence, in a lower-to-middle income neighborhood south of downtown. After nearly decades on the front lines, they are heartened by the serious attention to the crimes.

"It seemed to me that the size of the response really spoke to the level of denial there is about sexual violence, says Davis.

Abuse at the academy was well known to TESSA's workers who, in the course of 15 years, have helped 38 womem cadets who reported being raped. "It was old news in the respect that we knew sexual assault was happening there, just like it happens in the rest of the culture at large," says Davis.

And it seems to be old news to other women in to too. I stop to get a manicure at a shop downtown near "Holey Rollers" tattoo parlor. After the usual chitchat, I say to the beautician, "This town's sure been in the news lately, huh?"

Still supporting my hand across the manicuring station, she raises her eyebrows. "It's about time somebody said something about what goes on up there. You should see what the civil service puts up with," says the woman, who, it turns out, served in the Naval Reserve before working a civil service post at the academy for eight years. She says she quit to open up her shop.

"Must have been hard to give up those government benefits to become an entrepreneur," I say.

"It wasn't, really," she says, taking my other hand to file the nails evenly. "I loved myself more."

If geography is in fact destiny, I wonder how much of what has happened has to do with this place. Like all of the true West, the Colorado character is libertarian. The social contract states that you do your thing, I do mine, and we don't get in each other's way. "Colorado Springs has always been conservative," says Cara de Gette, editor of the Colorado Springs Independent, the local alternative newsweekly.

But in the last 20 years, the town at the base of Pike's Peak became characterized as not just a bastion of Republicanism, but as the "Vatican of evangelical Christianity." De Gette explains: "Essentially, at the end of the 1980s, Colorado Springs was known as the foreclosure capital of the country. Our reliance on defense contracting [nearly 60 percent of the local economy by some estimates] distressed us further when that money went south. So our city's leaders looked to diversify the economy." A few city leaders are credited with attracting Focus on the Family and other religious nonprofits to town as clean business."

The El Pomar Foundation provided a $4-million incentive grant to Focus on the Family, a moralistic, quasipolitical Christian organization, and it relocated to Colorado Springs in 1991. About 60 other national and international Christian nonprofits soon followed, from Compassion International to the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys, each employing anywhere from a handful to thousands of true believers.

"In retrospect," says de Gette, I think that the new business attracted folks who brought a much more rigid style of Republicanism, which in many ways has altered the local political landscape of the city." Although Colorado Springs seems to have moderated itself in recent years, it became infamous in the early 1990s for being the nucleus of support for the anti-gay initiative, Amendment 2, that led to boycotts of town business.

I don't know if there's a line connecting the dots between this culture and the military scandal. I do know there is a fundamental belief here in the strength and rightness of the individual. Personal responsibility is the mantra, and it is both liberating and oppressive. I am thinking of the account by a former cadet, Lisa Ballas, reported in the Colorado weekly Westword, in which she relates how the then-commander treated her chronicle of being forcibly penetrated by a cadet she had just been kissing in a bathroom at an off-campus party: "[Gilbert told me that I] didn't have to go to that party, didn't have to drink that night ... and didn't have to follow him back into that bathroom."

In other words, you have the power to make anything happen, and if something bad happens you created the opportunity for it to occur. Basically, as women have always been told, 'It was your fault.'

On my way out of town, I call my mom and mention where I am. "I love that place," she says. "I was engaged to an officer up there for a while."

"Really?" She's always doing this. Last surprise she sprung on me was the story that Elvis' first cousin tattooed her name on his shoulder blade while she was in basic training in Biloxi. I ask if she's heard about the sexual attacks at the academy. "Did you ever hear about stuff like that when you were in the Air Force?"

"Is New York big?" she says, by way of saying yes. Then she tells me about a captain who asked her out while she was in flight school. She wasn't supposed to fraternize with officers but didn't think it would be a good idea to say no to a superior. "On the drive home he pulls over, tells me I look like his ex-wife, and attacks me."

I'm not sure I am hearing her right. Until this moment, all I have ever heard from her was wonderful stuff about the Air Force.

"Attacks you? Like how?"

"Like he was going to rape me. He scared the bejesus out of me."

I pull off to the side of the road and hold my cell phone more tightly to my ear. "What did you do?"

"I fought him off and told him, 'You take me home right now.' He was not pleased but he did it," she says. "I saw him on base a few times after that and we both pretended like nothing had happened."

I have seen my mother slam a man against a wall. She changes her own oil and doesn't break a nail. She drinks scotch like Kool-Aid, and she blows smoke rings out her nose. But those women cadets must have been tough, too, and look at what they were forced to go through. The question goes through my mind, Did you really, Mom? Were you really able to fight him off?

I pull back onto Academy Boulevard toward I-25. On my right is the U.S. Taekwondo Union. Its sign reads, "Womens Self-Defense Classes/ Call Now." In the distance, apart from and above the town of Colorado Springs, the setting sun illuminates the white of the academy, glowing like Emerald City among the pines.