ELM GROVE, Wis.—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.
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."