View Full Version : AFA Scandals Confirm Senate Oversight Failure

03-05-04, 07:00 AM

AFA Scandals Confirm Senate Oversight Failure

By Roger Charles

Last year, Sen. John Warner, R-VA, reacted with shock and outrage to the Air Force Academy’s latest wave of sexual misconduct scandals. That response suggests that he did not have the slightest clue about the problems’ underlying source: the fundamental leadership failures that continue to plague that troubled campus.

In numerous public appearances, former female cadets forcefully declared that the Air Force continues to play damage-control games rather than deal forthrightly with the systemic problems they had experienced first-hand at “Falcon U.”

Conveying a proper sense of outrage via a gaggle of cameras and reporters, Warner promised that the Senate Armed Services Committee (which he chairs) would see that these fine young Americans would be the last ones treated so vilely at the Academy.

The American public took solace in knowing that this junkyard dog was at his post, overseeing the self-investigation of the Air Force as yet another avalanche of horrific charges documented that the leaders of the Air Force and its Academy again had failed in their most basic responsibility: to protect all assigned to their safekeeping.

In a five-star performance, Warner ignored the long-established pattern of sexual misconduct in the Air Force – not only at the Academy – but also at the highest levels of leadership.

The General Accounting Office had issued major reports of sexual harassment at U.S. service academies dating back to 1991. Filled with statistical displays and interspersed with turgid bureaucratic prose, the reports fail to convey the outrageousness of the sexual assaults and the victims’ emotional suffering. The reports demonstrate conclusively that the Air Force Academy had effected no fundamental change, and that Warner and his fellow members of Congress had flunked their oversight roles.

While the GAO reports may lack the “human factor,” it is readily available elsewhere. A survey of media reports unearths the ugly truth.

What follows are descriptions taken from the public media of three cases of sexual assault/harassment at the Academy. They are presented as reminders that young Americans who wanted only to serve their country were left abandoned and emotionally broken. Such casualties caused by inept leaders weaken our forces just as much as casualties due to hostile gunfire.

“Conduct Unbecoming”

On Apr. 7, 1995, the ABC news magazine 20/20 aired this report to expose abuses and gross leadership failures related to “rape scenario” training at the AFA summer Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program. This has been taught for decades to those most likely to face capture by hostile forces, i.e., air crews, Special Operations forces, etc. Based on POW experience in the 1991 war with Iraq where two female personnel were captured, the AFA sought to implement “cross-gender captivity training.”

Thirteen million viewers saw the story of Christian Polintan, the son of a USAF career officer and a promising recruit. While participating in the AFA summer SERE program in 1993, Polintan had experienced a bizarre near-rape, which The Los Angles Times later termed “simulated sodomy.”

An exemplary cadet prior to the abuse, Polintan had thrived on the challenges of freshman year. It was as a peer leader that Polintan was singled out for the simulated sodomy by the “cadre” that ran the SERE program.

These cadre were cadets in their junior and senior years, along with a few mid-level NCOs from the SERE training center at Fairchild AFB, Wash. Following the twisted logic that determined that rape-scenario training was a requirement for the future leaders of the Air Force, the older cadets saw “breaking” Polintan as the smart way to show his peers that any of them could be turned into collaborators for the prison camp administration.

Playing the role of female “love toy” for the prison camp staff, Polintan had been made to wear a plastic garbage bag “skirt” and women’s cosmetics. After spending a day in the role, he was taken into an interrogation room where an NCO played the role of enemy interrogator.

According to Polintan, the NCO “sat down on a stool right next to me and started to fondle me … and still said some degrading things, mostly sexual.” On 20/20, Polintan related that the NCO “told me to take off my skirt .… At that moment, as soon as I took off my skirt, I knew I was in trouble .… He told me to bend over the table .… I was just in shock of what they were doing. I could not believe it was happening to me.”

But Polintan’s ordeal had just begun: “He brought me over to a bench, and then he tied me, my hands under the bench .… I was lying on my stomach .… They brought another prisoner in told him to act like he was having sex with me. And the cadet tried to resist – he said you know that’s sick – I don’t want to do it .… And they made him get on top of me and act like he’s having sex with me.”

Rather than deny the essential facts of Polintan’s story, the Academy responded that the formal guidelines for the program had been followed: Polintan had overreacted to “realistic resistance training.” Initially, the AFA Public Affairs Office claimed that Polintan was the only cadet to complain.

Filmed in shadow to conceal her identity, a courageous female cadet came forward to relate her experience in an on-camera interview. With two senior staff officers observing, ABC reporter Tom Jarriel led the cadet through her harrowing story:

“The cadet guy had taken me into the room. Told me take off my clothes and I refused and then at that time the other cadre member who as in there picked me up and threw me on the table and held me down as the other cadet proceeded to try and unbutton my shirt .… I was face up. They were holding my shoulders down … and the other cadet was trying to undo my clothing .… I was kicking and screaming and cursing and telling them to get off of me and screaming for help .… [One cadet] was standing between my legs.”

The rape scenario stopped when the female cadet kicked this male cadet in his groin. By interviewing other cadets, 20/20 learned that 24 cadets were subjected to varying degrees of sexual assault while participating in the 1993 SERE program.

In yet another bizarre twist, cadre videotaped and observed most – if not all – of the cadet “interrogations” through two-way mirrors. Indeed, official documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the Academy commandant had escorted his wife to observe the “training.”

Two gutsy young Americans described their experiences for millions in the Friday night television audience; however, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Warner did not find their traumas sufficient to launch an investigation into the lack of leadership at the Air Force Academy.

“Her Own Private Tailhook”

Another expose soon put Air Force leadership failures “front and center” in the national media. On May 28, 1995, The New York Times Magazine described the experiences of Elizabeth Saum, another cadet sexually assaulted at the 1993 SERE session.

Reporter Laura Palmer’s first two paragraphs captured the essence of Saum’s traumatic abuse:


03-05-04, 07:00 AM
“After two days without food or sleep, Elizabeth Saum, the 19-year-old POW, was shivering and bruised from repeated beatings. She was the bait, the way to pry information out of her fellow captive. The interrogator had warned him: ‘Every time you resist, I’ll beat the *****.’ A video camera recorded the scene as other prisoners watched. When the interrogation finally ended, hoods were again placed over the two prisoner’s heads.”

“For weeks, Saum had been warned that they were out to get her. One of her captors led Saum out to the woods, ordered her to unbutton her shirt and get on her back. He forced her knees apart and knelt between her legs, demanding to know if she was ‘ready for it.’ Another man was smiling as he videotaped the scene.”

Like Christian Polintan, Saum endured training that included highly-disturbing sexual role-playing that went far beyond the legitimate requirements for cross-gender captivity training. A formal investigation confirmed that she “was wrongfully required to walk with a stick in her trousers and to state it was her ‘masturbation stick’ when asked about it.”

Saum was mentally and physically traumatized by her ordeal. A petite 5 feet 3 inches and 100 pounds, she had been lifted off the ground and shaken until she passed out by a male cadre who stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed 205 pounds. According to a nurse practitioner at the cadet clinic, Saum’s SERE injuries were unlike any she witnessed.

Somehow, Saum completed her sophomore year at AFA. However, she suffered from significant weight loss, insomnia, and paranoia, a symptom fueled by taunting from fellow cadets who bragged that they had seen the videotape of Saum’s SERE interrogation.

When Saum succeeded in catching the attention of Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall, the service conducted two investigations into her SERE experience. A formal investigation by a general officer found that “violations of SERE regulations and guidelines did occur, and they were the result of poor technique, inconsistent or confusing guidance, or overzealous or mistaken role-playing …. ” He found that Saum’s treatment pointed out “areas which require attention,” but that no “actionable misconduct occurred.”

Saum then realized that she would have to seek justice outside the Air Force. Represented by attorney Doris Besikof, Saum accused the Secretary of the Air Force and others of violating her constitutional rights in the 1993 SERE training. Bringing the suit on this basis did not allow the U.S. government to invoke the Feres Doctrine (which upheld the government’s right not to be sued by its employees), which would have led to an easy dismissal.

In November 1996, a federal district court judge in Denver ordered Widnall to personally appear in his courtroom to answer questions about the Air Force’s failure to engage in good-faith negotiations with Saum for a financial settlement. On Dec. 9, the judge stated that Widnall was required to be in his court on Dec. 13 for a hearing to determine why the Air Force was ignoring his order.

Faced with the public relations disaster of its Secretary in the dock answering questions under oath for a skeptical judge, the Air Force did what it routinely does in such cases: It used millions of taxpayer dollars to pay for the damages caused by egregious and gross leadership failures by a general officer. While the exact amount Saum’s financial settlement was sealed at the request of the government, I have learned that it exceeded $3 million dollars.

National news media, including The New York Times, carried the announcement of the settlement on Dec. 14, 1996. The chances that Warner and his staff missed both the Christian Polintan and Libby Saum stories are miniscule.

If Congress had paid attention, key indicators would have provided ample warning of trouble at Falcon U. A search of the local media reporting of misconduct by cadets and faculty dating back to 1990 would have been sufficient to have rung alarms all over Capitol Hill.

If this latest group of victims do testify for Warner’s committee, it is likely that he will mouth the same tired sound bites. The record of past inaction leaves little doubt that he and his committee will do nothing to bring about the fundamental changes needed to protect current and future cadets from further abuse.

And if that happens, in a few years there will be yet another congressional hearing into another abysmal leadership failure at the Air Force Academy. Another generation of AFA graduates will enter the operational forces without experiencing the moral leadership that the Air Force and the United States so badly need.

Roger Charles is Washington Correspondent of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at rogcharles@aol.com. Send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.