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Published: Sunday, 3/23/2003

Toledo woman broke the code

BY MILAN SIMONICH
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Deep in the Rockies, on an unforgiving training ground called Jack's Valley, a pack of the Air Force Academy's best and brightest young men attacked a female cadet for amusement.

The woman, Elizabeth Saum, was ordered to play the part of a prisoner of war during a field exercise. Her male “captors” punched her, slapped her, shook her, unbuttoned her pants, climbed on top of her and pretended to rape her.

All of it was videotaped as part of the academy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape program, a mandatory drill gone wild.

The attack left the former Toledoan, who made A's at Notre Dame Academy and excelled in springboard diving, with a torn cartilage in her chest, bruised ribs, a series of bruises on her neck and a case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

She suffered for months in silence while her weight plunged from 110 to 80 pounds. Then Ms. Saum, who was 19 years old, took a lonely stand that challenged the might of the Air Force.

She publicly accused academy administrators of ignoring or covering up crimes committed by male cadets.

Ms. Saum also sued in federal court, contending that the climate at the academy was unsafe. She received an out-of-court settlement in 1996, an apology from the Air Force, and a pledge that allegations of abuse would be thoroughly investigated. Critics of the academy say that is not how things have worked out.

Ten years after Ms. Saum's case began, the academy is deep in a still-unfolding rape scandal. The charges Ms. Saum made about Air Force indifference to crimes at its elite training academy have been picked up by senators, congressmen, and dozens of current and former female cadets who are calling for accountability and reform at the academy.

The Air Force itself acknowledges problems, saying at least 56 allegations of sexual assault have been made at the academy during the decade since Ms. Saum's complaint.

Administrators at the school near Colorado Springs, Colo., speculate that dozens more cases could surface.

“I'm very disappointed that it's still going on, but I'm not the least bit surprised,” said Ms. Saum, now 29 and a teacher in Boston. “It's the same mentality at work as when I was there.”

Lt. Gen. John R. Dallager, the academy superintendent, says otherwise, maintaining that the school does its best to deal forthrightly with all allegations of sexual assault or misconduct.

“Cases such as these are often complex, and news reports typically don't reflect all the factors that must be considered in judging whether these cases have been handled fairly,” General Dallager said. “Nonetheless, even one assault or one mishandling of a case is one too many.”

Ms. Saum said a culture of silence permeates the academy for a simple reason:

Being tough enough not to complain is the most prized attribute any cadet can have.

In her time at the academy, anybody who reported on a fellow cadet, particularly an upperclassmen, was likely to be ostracized or labeled a whiner.

Of the academy's 4,058 students, 16 percent, or 664, are women. They are told from the start to steel themselves for the same grueling academic and military training as the men.

That was exactly what Ms. Saum wanted.

Her parents thought she was sold on attending Davidson College in North Carolina. They were surprised when the Air Force Academy began recruiting her and shocked when their daughter became interested.

When Ms. Saum visited the academy, she was thunderstruck by its beauty. Pikes Peak serves as the campus backdrop.

She wanted to attend medical school; so the academy's high academic standards appealed to her. So did its pledges of honor and commitment to doing things right — “Integrity First,” “Service Before Self,” and “Excellence In All We Do.”

But the academy's greatest attraction, in Ms. Saum's eyes, was the challenge it presented to a 5-foot-3, 110-pound woman who was deemed by some friends and acquaintances as unfit for the demands of military training.

“I heard from so many people not to do it. I wanted the challenge, and my whole town was in awe of the prestige of being appointed to go there.”

Her father, Steve, a Toledo building contractor, said she was so serious about succeeding that she hired a personal trainer to prepare for basic training. She arrived at the academy in the summer of 1992 in tiptop condition.

Ms. Saum zipped through basic training and made the dean's list when classes began. Still, she says now, she found the academy brutal and hypocritical.

Cadets were prohibited by academy policy from locking the doors to their rooms. Everybody knew it, Ms. Saum said, so male upperclassmen would walk into women's rooms whenever they felt the urge. One night, Ms. Saum said, a drunken cadet opened her door, staggered in and leered at her.

She said her squadron commander made sexual advances after ordering her to his room, where pictures of nude women covered the wall. When the hazing and advances persisted, Ms. Saum said, she complained to a ranking female officer. An inquiry began, but Ms. Saum soon felt intimidated.

In the ranks, “people ripped me apart and called me a baby and a tattletale. I knew then that the tougher you are, the more respect you get.”

She did not think life at the academy could get worse, but it did during survival training in 1993.

During POW drills in Jack's Valley, a heavily wooded area on the academy grounds, she was beaten and made the victim in the simulated rape. Videotape of her ordeal circulated at the academy, contributing to her humiliation. (Because of what happened to Ms. Saum, the academy dropped the resistance aspect of the training).

After Ms. Saum was attacked, all her instincts told her to keep her mouth shut rather than come across as a complainer.

Feeling shell-shocked, she stopped eating and had trouble sleeping.

“When she came home she would get up in the middle of the night and run,” Steve Saum said. “We knew something was wrong, but she wouldn't tell us what it was.”

With their daughter wasting away before their eyes, the Saums pressed her to talk to them or to somebody who could help. Ms. Saum saw a private doctor, who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder, an illness often found in combat veterans.

She left the academy in 1994, returning home to attend the University of Toledo. Still, trouble persisted.

She didn't menstruate in cycle for eight years, and her parents worried that her battered psyche was causing other physical problems that would kill her.

“She was a twig. She wouldn't eat. She couldn't sleep,” Steve Saum said.

After settling her lawsuit against the academy (the school says the amount of the payment is “confidential”), Ms. Saum's health gradually improved. Now married, she has a son and is pregnant with her second child.

With the Air Force Academy awash in scandal, Ms. Saum has found herself drawn back into the story. She talks about her experience at the school because, she says, silence never helped anyone.

The fact that she did not graduate from the academy still disappoints her. After completing her first year, she felt confident that the worst was behind her and she would make it.

“I paid my price in the beginning. I thought in my second year everything would be OK,” she says now. Then came the attack, and her life was changed forever.

Her parents eventually learned that she had been assaulted by fellow cadets in survival training. Livid, Steve Ms. Saum expected the academy to help his daughter get treatment and punish the cadets who beat her.

“Instead they spent a fortune on lawyers to cover it up,” he said. “They teach the cadets to suck it up and go on, no matter what. When it comes to themselves, they're like a corporation. They smother the critics.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Milan Simonich is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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