03-05-04, 07:00 AM
03-04-2004 <br />
AFA Scandals Confirm Senate Oversight Failure <br />
By Roger Charles
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Send Feedback responses to email@example.com.