After “Kristen” was sexually assaulted at the Air Force Academy, she followed the advice of Academy leaders and sought counseling. Only later did she learn her counselor had slapped her with a mental diagnosis that was then used as grounds to try to drum her out of the Academy, a week before graduation.
“I took advantage of it, thinking it was in my interest,” she says of the counseling, “but it was my downfall.”
That practice is prevalent, say cadets: The Academy blames alleged victims for sexual assault and, as observer David Mullin, a former Academy economics professor, says, finds ways to label them “sluts or nuts” to minimize the school’s sexual assault problem and rid the campus of those who step forward.
While the Academy has been disgraced over the years by exposés revealing academic cheating, cadet drug abuse and favoritism toward fundamental Christianity, its treatment of sexual assault has brought a plague of national headlines since an initial scandal erupted in 2003.
Back then, dozens of cadets who said they were sexually assaulted claimed the Academy punished them for infractions related to the assaults while their attackers escaped prosecution, graduated and were commissioned as Air Force officers. The resulting uproar triggered at least three investigations, led to a superintendent’s demotion and gave birth to a fresh commitment to help victims and prosecute criminals.
But new scandals have since come to light, including reports that the Academy uses cadets as confidential informants to ferret out drug abuse and rape in the Cadet Wing. Reportedly, the Academy looks the other way if accusations involve football players. (For more on the Academy’s damning history of sexual assault, see “A history of sexual violence.”)
Now, current and former cadets who say they were victims of sexual assault claim the Academy uses mental health counselors — the very people assigned to help them — to add diagnoses to their record in a way that could damage their prospects permanently. Once victims are labeled with a serious mental illness, they can be expelled and even forced to reimburse the Academy for their education.
Besides Kristen, who didn’t want her real name used for fear of further damage to her Air Force career, another cadet tells the Indy she was threatened with disenrollment after being diagnosed with a personality disorder. Another says he was bounced only to discover years later that the Academy had added multiple mental disorders to his record from a doctor he’d never seen, at a base he’d never been to, leading his attorney to accuse the Academy of “aggressive falsification of medical records.” (All three submitted to extensive psychological testing outside the Academy, and were found to have no psychological disorders.)
How far-reaching such tactics are is unclear, but an Academy sexual assault response coordinator, speaking publicly about the inner workings of the Academy’s methods for the first time, says it’s common practice for alleged victims to be unfairly tagged with mental disorders and pushed out.
“I think deep down they don’t think sexual assaults exist there,” says Teresa Beasley, a career sexual assault response coordinator for the military who began working at the Academy in 2007. “They think that women are making it up. They believe that still. That’s where we were in 2003. We haven’t made any progress, because they don’t want to admit that that can happen there.”
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