When "Kristen" was sexually assaulted during her junior year at the Air Force Academy outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, she waited five months to report the incident. Even then, she disclosed it to the Academy's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office as a restricted report in order to avoid a criminal investigation and keep her identity confidential. "I did this because I've seen how victims of sexual assault are treated at the Academy," she told the Colorado Springs Independent. Meaning, she wanted to avoid being ostracized.
She was still struggling with the incident a year later, and revealed the assault to her counselor (she'd began counseling shortly after the incident, though she didn't make the assault known then). But that counseling session would ultimately become her "downfall," she said: though she didn't know it at the time, Kristen left her counseling session with a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis that, she says, would be used to kick her out of the Academy a week before graduation. When appealing the decision, she learned that she'd been diagnosed with three other disorders, too.
Kristen is one of several former or current Air Force cadets who claim that reporting their sexual assaults led to mental diagnoses used as grounds for their expulsion, according to an investigation the Independent published yesterday.
The report comes less than a month after the Academy placed all personnel in its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office on paid leave due to an investigation of the office that the school won't discuss. Teresa Beasley, a sexual assault response coordinator for 30 years who had been with the Academy since 2007, was one of those placed on leave. According to her, things started deteriorating when she and her colleagues began speaking up about "punitive tactics" the Academy used against alleged sexual assault accusers.
Beasley told the Independent that she believes her leave came as payback for those who stood up to Academy leaders against practices that minimized sexual assaults and penalized those who report them. One such penalty, according to Beasley: Assigning mental health diagnoses for an accuser's dismissal from the Academy.
This isn't the first sexual assault scandal the Academy's been embroiled in—that happened back in 2003, when dozens of cadets who were sexually assaulted said the Academy punished them while their attackers escaped prosecution and graduated. The accusations led to multiple investigations, a superintendent's demotion, and a fresh commitment to help those who experience assault and prosecute criminals.
That "fresh commitment" may still need work, though, as two other Academy students—Adam DeRito, who was dis-enrolled from the Academy in 2010, and "Sophia," who's currently a student—had similar stories as Kristen to share with the Independent.
Six years after DeRito was forced to leave the Academy, he learned they had given him diagnoses of "impulse control disorder" and "personality disorder NOS [not otherwise specified]" following his own sexual assault, he told the Independent, though later tests revealed DeRito had "no severe personality pathology" and "no clinical syndromes." The diagnoses were dated in 2011, a year after he'd left the school. Even worse: Following his dis-enrollment, the Academy sent DeRito a $168,000 bill to cover his education expenses because he didn't (read: couldn't) enlist—a debt he's still paying off and will continue to for years to come.
Sophia voiced regret in coming forward following her sexual assault. "I shouldn't have done it. I should've never said anything," she told the Independent. Sophia was sexually assaulted twice, once by a student-athlete, and claims that many of her demerits at the Academy have been the result of reporting the assaults. Sophia was initially diagnosed with PTSD following the assaults, then later with "other specified personality disorder." Yet testing she sought out at Peterson Air Force Base didn't indicate any type of personality disorder. Sophia is not worried those diagnoses will stand in the way of her graduation, but worries they could prevent her from becoming a pilot.
The Independent was only able to ask the Academy for specific comment on Adam DeRito's case, as the other two cadets who reported sexual assault had used pseudonyms to protect their identity. Though the Academy refused to comment on DeRito's case without authorization, they did have the following to say as a general statement about the accusations of using mental health diagnoses to remove cadets:
"The Air Force will not discuss individual medical care unless required by law [or] other appropriate authority…Leaders are extremely careful to create an environment that does not foster victim blaming, or the perception of victim blaming. Taking care of each other is part of who we are, and we go to great lengths to provide a culture rooted in the core principles of human dignity and respect for all cadets, faculty, and staff."
"We take any allegations of reprisals very seriously," Lieutenant Colonel Allen Herritage, director of public affairs for the Academy, tells Tonic. "We're mandated to take any of those allegations and report them up our chain of command. That's something we look at closely because it's crucial that we make an environment where cadets feel like they can report sexual assault and get the help they need, and it's important that the cadets know that. I would hate that cadets read that story and feel like they shouldn't come forth."
Herritage also mentions a recent Service Academy Gender Relations Survey given to all military academies in the US. According to him, the anonymous survey found that 99 percent of women and men in all Academies believe senior leaders make "honest and reasonable efforts to stop sexual assault"—an increase since 2008. Herritage adds that, according to the survey, 98.6 percent of men and 97.4 percent of women believe that the chain of command would take a report of sexual assault seriously.
Nonetheless, the alleged "trap" of seeking counseling after sexual assault appears to affect people not just in military academies, but those serving in the military as well. A 2015 report from Human Rights Watch found that service members across the military branches reported that receiving mental health counseling following sexual assault can be the start of an involuntary discharge.