Only a year ago, Andrea Prasse was a star at the Air Force Academy. In the top third of her class with a high-ranking leadership position, she was soon to graduate and begin training as a fighter pilot.
Now she is a woman of 22 who has no diploma, is an outcast among her former classmates and has been the subject of death threats over the Internet.
Officially, Prasse was found guilty of violating the academy's sacrosanct honor code that enjoins cadets to not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate others who do so.
But worse, in the eyes of many at the academy, she has spoken out against a fellow student and an institution that expects absolute loyalty.
Prasse says school officials allowed a male cadet to stalk and harass her for almost a year, refusing to intervene in any meaningful way. It was this student who was largely responsible for the honor code accusations against Prasse, which she contends were vindictive and unfounded.
The story of the Wisconsin native's experiences opens a window into a military college culture that officials now acknowledge often is hostile and denigrating to women. The academy's methods were made public this year after at least 47 women came forward to members of Congress to report being raped or sexually assaulted.
Stung by the ensuing criticism, the Air Force last month decided to remove four leaders at the academy and announced a series of changes designed to prevent assaults, tighten accountability and handle sexual tensions at the college more effectively.
They include separate living arrangements for men and women during freshman-year boot camp; the clustering of women in dorm rooms near bathrooms; a promise that victims who report assaults won't be subject to academy discipline for breaking rules; and heightened, round-the-clock security in the dorm buildings.
Overhaul `a good start'
"Enough talking. It's time for doing," Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida said during a ceremony Thursday installing him as the new acting superintendent and commandant of cadets.Whether the overhaul goes deep enough to the heart of the problems women have struggled with at the academy is a matter of debate.
"It's a good start," said Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), a critic of the academy's handling of sex abuse allegations. "But we need to make sure we monitor these changes for five years at least. There needs to be close oversight."
Prasse is even more skeptical. The primary problem she and others identify at the institution--they say it is a male-dominated culture with commonplace disdain for women--won't be altered by the changes, she suggests.
Prasse said her four years at the college destroyed her trust in military justice and shattered her dreams of being an astronaut.
The oldest of four sisters, Prasse was 12 when she set her mind on going to the Air Force Academy after a family trip to Florida, the home of the U.S. space program. During high school she focused intensely on her goal. She took the required courses, ran track and swam competitively.
"Very hard-working, very motivated," is how Brookfield (Wis.) East High School swim coach Mike Rose describes Prasse.
Nothing in her past, however, prepared Prasse for the life of a new cadet at the military academy in Colorado Springs. Stripped of most of their personal possessions, the male and female freshman cadets were subjected to constant haranguing and criticism as a test of their mettle and endurance.
"They throw as much at you as possible, calling you ugly and fat, to see how much you can take," said Susan Archibald, an academy graduate and former instructor. "With the women especially, it's guys in your face trying to make you break down and cry."
Having to prove her grit didn't bother Prasse so much as the disparaging remarks male classmates made. Male cadets often joked about female students who had what they called "CHD"--"Colorado hip disease"--and "terrazzo butts," a reference to a wide grassy area on the campus.
When she objected, "they made you feel it was your fault that you had a problem," she said. "It was always the female's fault."
It was an indication of what was to come.
Late in the spring of her freshman year, Prasse went to downtown Colorado Springs with a group from her squadron. When they got back, her next-door neighbor, a junior who had been drinking, pulled her into his room, pushed her down on the bed, pulled off her clothes and assaulted her, she said.
It stopped short of rape, Prasse said, because she cried and asked him, "How would you feel if this was happening to your sister?"
It is the Tribune's policy to not name the victims of alleged sexual assault, but Prasse has consented to being identified.
To Prasse, reporting the incident wasn't an option. All her training told her that if things get tough, a cadet is expected to buck up and just take it. "If you rock the boat, if you complain, everyone hates you," she said. "They would have accused me of trying to ruin this guy's life. And we were going to be in the same squadron the next year, so why make waves?"
An exemplary student
By senior year, Prasse had shown herself to be an exemplary student, one of only two women in her class scheduled to graduate with a degree in aeronautical engineering. The only demerits on her record were for minor offenses such as being late to class. She was held in such esteem that she was appointed director of operations for her group, a high-ranking position.
But Prasse had a problem. A fellow student in aeronautical engineering had started criticizing her incessantly and showing controlling behavior, such as wanting to know where she was and who she was with at all times, Prasse claims.
The two had been friends the year before, and Prasse felt the student was interested in her romantically. That interest became obsessive and a form of ongoing harassment as the year went on, Prasse contends.
Turning to officers in her squadron and to teachers, she was told to work the situation out. Her failure to set appropriate boundaries was the problem, top officers at the academy alleged, not the male cadet's behavior, according to Prasse and her family.
Several other women have reported being blamed by the academy or disciplined for infractions after reporting sexual assault or harassment.
The student whom Prasse has accused of harassment did not return calls for comment. Air Force Academy spokeswoman Pam Ancker declined to comment, noting that Prasse's complaints are still being considered.
The simmering tension between the two cadets erupted with a dispute over a class assignment. The male cadet accused Prasse of changing her explanation of where she got an element of an engine design--in essence, accusing her of lying, an honor code violation that is punishable by expulsion.
Prasse said she had admitted from the beginning that she took the engine design element from other students, which was allowed in the class. E-mails and statements from a teacher and an official in her squadron indicate they believed she had done nothing wrong.
Yet the matter went to an honor board, composed of eight cadets and one official, that found Prasse guilty eight days before graduation. She would be denied a diploma, unable to serve in the military and required to repay the government for the cost of her education.
When the verdict was announced, Prasse vomited.
A day before, one of her professors, Russell Cummings, had written: "I have never had any reason to believe that Andrea is anything but an honorable, hard-working cadet. ... [She] does not deserve to be put through the situation she now finds herself."
Sens. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) intervened, asking the Air Force to look into charges that the honor board process was unfair.
"There appears to be clear support for Andrea from persons of credibility that doesn't appear anywhere in what was considered," said Joanne Anton, a top Kohl aide.
In February, then-academy Supt. John Dallager decided Prasse could return if she agreed to a six-month probation. She declined the offer on the grounds that she did nothing wrong. Her lawyers are negotiating with Air Force officials over terms under which she could receive her degree.
As for flying, that dream from Prasse's childhood is finished. "I don't trust the Air Force," she said. "I wouldn't be welcomed there. ... No woman really is. When it comes down to it, you're never one of the boys."Copyright © 2015, CT Now