COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The Air Force's top general apologized Friday to the 54 female cadets who said they were raped or sexually assaulted at the Air Force Academy during the past decade but said he had no plans to fire anyone "just to grab tomorrow morning's headlines."
"I apologize to any victim who is still out there," said Air Force Chief of Staff John P. Jumper. "But I am not going to sit here and say I am firing the current leadership. Changes will be made, but I going to fix the problem first, and I don't think the problems start with the current generation of leadership."
Jumper, who spent two days at the beleaguered academy in closed-door talks with cadets and officers, told reporters he wanted all victims to come forward and would consider amnesty for those who broke academy rules before their attacks.
He also announced that he and Air Force Secretary James Roche would write letters to the families of all incoming female cadets vouching for the climate and safety of the institution.
Roche has ordered the Inspector General's office of the Department of Defense to examine all rape complaints to see if due process was followed.
The Air Force Academy has been shaken during the past few weeks by escalating charges from current and former cadets claiming they were raped or sexually assaulted by male cadets and officers and then ignored or retaliated against when they complained.
The number continues to rise - from 25 last week to 54 as of Friday.
Reports of sexual assault aren't new to the academy. A 1994 report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said 78 percent of the 90 women at the academy had been victims of unwanted sexual advances or assault.
The Air Force, desperate to get a handle on the widening scandal, has dispatched investigators to the academy to examine its policies toward sexual assault.
They want to find ways to let women report rape without retribution or a paper trail following them throughout their careers.
Many victims said they had been drinking or fraternizing with upperclassmen when the attacks occurred, and the drinking and fraternizing infractions, rather than the sexual assaults, were raised when they filed complaints.
Female cadets said they were ordered out of bed by upperclassmen, who have authority over them, and were gang-raped or raped multiple times. Perpetrators were rarely punished, they said. One cadet told a counselor her attacker was made to write a paper as punishment.
Jumper admitted he didn't know if anyone was prosecuted.
"I am not up to speed on numbers," he said.
In contrast with last week's blistering speech by Roche to the 4,000 cadets in which he repeatedly called those who committed sexual assaults "bums" and "criminals," Jumper was circumspect, seemingly more interested in boosting academy morale than affixing blame.
"I wanted to reassure the vast majority of them of the confidence we have in them," Jumper said. "I also told them there is no such thing as loyalty by silence."
Cadets in turn told him they were distraught that their reputations were being sullied by a scandal that dwarfs the 1991 Tailhook incident when drunken Navy and Marine aviators sexually assaulted dozens of servicewomen in a Las Vegas hotel.
David Kelly is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.