Defense Department names panel to review Air Force sex assault cases

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Tuesday appointed a seven-member, independent panel of civilians to review allegations of sexual assault at the Air Force Academy. Tillie Fowler, a partner at the law firm Holland & Knight and a former Florida congresswoman, will chair the panel.

In addition to Fowler, who served on the House Armed Services Committee during her tenure in Congress, other members of the panel include: Josiah Bunting, superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute; Amy McCarthy, an Air Force Academy graduate; Laura Miller, a social scientist at RAND; Michael Nardotti, law partner at the law firm Patton, Boggs, and a retired Army major general; John Ripley, director of the Marine Corps History Center and Museum and a Naval Academy graduate; and Sally Satel, a practicing psychiatrist at the Oasis Drug Treatment Center in Washington.

The creation of the panel comes at a time when the Air Force's top leaders are leaving their posts.

Earlier this month, President Bush announced his intention to nominate Air Force Secretary James Roche as the administration's new Army secretary, replacing Thomas White, who left his post in April.

Roche and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper have publicly vowed over the past few months to thoroughly investigate the policies and climate at the Air Force Academy that resulted in the sexual assault allegations. At a March 31 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Roche and Jumper pledged to implement a series of reforms, known as the "agenda for change," prior to the arrival of the class of 2007. Those reforms included improving management of assault cases, providing more training to on-site crisis counselors and ensuring that perpetrators are punished for wrongdoing.

According to Air Force Academy spokesman Lt. Col. Dewey Ford, Roche and Jumper are both "heavily engaged in this issue. . . . This will provide much continuity during any transition should Dr. Roche be nominated and confirmed as secretary of the Army." Ford added that "many of the directives in the agenda for change have already been implemented and many more will be in place when the class of 2007 enters in June."

Ford also said that the new leadership team installed at the academy, "with the full support of the senior leaders of the Air Force, are committed to following through on the path set by Secretary Roche and Gen. Jumper." As a result of the scandal, Roche replaced three top school officials in March. The academy's superintendent, Lt. Gen. John Dallager, will retire as planned this summer and will be replaced by Maj. Gen. John Rosa Jr.

A spokesman for Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., whose office has fielded complaints about sexual abuse at the school from about 50 current and former cadets, said that a change in leadership now would not slow the momentum of reform. "At this point, the issue has gotten much bigger than whoever is secretary of the Air Force," said Dick Wadhams.

Terri Spahr Nelson, a psychotherapist and author of the book, For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military, said that in the past, leaders have not put the "appropriate follow through" into attacking the problem of sexual violence within the military. "There is a zero tolerance policy in policy, and not in practice," Nelson said.

But Nelson said she sensed that the situation involving the Air Force Academy is not the same as previous incidents. "It's different this time, and it's different because there are a lot of different groups watching to see what is going to happen: advocates, crisis counselors, military folks, and [members of Congress]," Nelson said.

Nelson, who was in the Army and participated in one of the first training units with both male and female members in the 1970s, said that the House Armed Services Committee's recent approval of a military-civilian task force to investigate sexual harassment and violence at the Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., was a "pretty significant step forward" and will help ensure that the issue doesn't "get lost in time." The provision creating the task force is in the fiscal 2004 Defense authorization bill passed by the House last week.

It is unclear when Roche will leave his post as Air Force secretary, and no one has been nominated yet as a replacement. A May 8 Associated Press report said that Barbara McConnell Barrett, a former FAA official, is a leading candidate. The Pentagon would not speculate on who might replace Roche.

Nelson said that the attitude of the new Air Force leader in dealing with sexual assault at the academy-more so than his or her gender-will be important in changing the school's response to the issue. "The greater impact on the Air Force and the academy will be reflective in how the new leadership addresses this issue," she said. "The leadership sets the climate and the tone from the top down when it comes to adhering to the zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment and rape."

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