TUCSON, Ariz. - Like other women accepted into the U.S. Air Force Academy, Sharon Fullilove was a star of her high school graduating class.
Her academy application in 1999 included letters of commendation from President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
But in November 1999, six months after entering the academy, she quit - devastated, she says, from being raped by a fellow cadet and convinced that she would find no help in the academy's male-dominated culture.
The daughter of an Air Force colonel, Fullilove said she believed that a majority of women in the academy are raped or molested and that most choose not to report it because they fear an official investigation would expose them to shame, ridicule and retribution, if not dismissal.
About 18 percent of the 4,200-member cadet corps are women.
"During the school year, you talk to people it has happened to, even upperclassmen, and they all say the same thing," Fullilove, 23, said in an interview here, where she is attending the University of Arizona. "They tell you to expect getting raped, and if it doesn't happen to you, you're one of the rare ones.
"They say if you want a chance to stay here, if you want to graduate, you don't tell. You just deal with it."
Many come forward
Fullilove's views are shared by dozens of other women who have left the academy before graduating, saying they were victims of rape and other sexual attacks.
Many have come forward in recent months, recounting their ordeals and expressing their outrage, as Fullilove did, about an environment that they say favors men and protects them against complaints of sexual assault.
She said that long after her rape, she learned that her assailant worked at the time as a counselor who answered the academy's hot line for women who want to report a rape or other sexual attacks.
The Air Force acknowledges that at least 56 cases of rape or other sexual assaults at the academy have been investigated during the past 10 years, though only one male cadet has faced a court-martial as a result of any accusation, in 1995. He was acquitted.
Eight other male cadets have been expelled in sexual attacks since 1996.
The academy says that it has no records of sexual assaults in the first 20 years of women's admission, starting in 1976.
Now, with the academy facing growing congressional pressure over the issue, Air Force Secretary James G. Roche and the chief of staff, Gen. John P. Jumper, have promised that an investigation into past cases and the failures of a system that was designed to prevent them will lead to major changes.
Air Force officials have said they will establish living areas for men and women at opposite ends of halls and provide counselors for women who bring their complaints forward.
On Friday, the Air Force inspector-general announced that the Pentagon had set up a confidential phone line for victims of sexual assaults.
The full list of proposed changes is expected by the end of the month.
Roche said in an interview Friday that perceptions of Fullilove and other women who are victims "just sicken me," asserting that the Air Force was ill-served by an academy culture that would appear to condone aggressive behavior by men, leaving women to feel intimidated, inferior and overwhelmed.
Changing that culture, he said, is the focus of the current investigation.
"This subject just drives me up a tree," he said of the threatening atmosphere women describe. "It's the worst of any of this. I don't want young women to feel that they have to make that kind of humiliating sacrifice to become officers."
Fullilove's mother, Col. Michaela Shafer, a 20-year Air Force veteran who serves as commander of in-patient and emergency room services at the academy hospital, said in an interview that dozens of commanders and teachers, some as highly ranked as colonel, often wear canary-yellow baseball hats bearing the black letters "LCWB."
She said these initials were commonly known on campus to evoke a vulgar phrase celebrating the graduating class of 1979, the last class with men only.
Shafer said the same letters are visible on license plates and at pep rallies for academy football games.
While Roche said he was disturbed that men would flaunt such a message with caps and signs, Shafer said it reflected to many women at the academy a place driven by "an overriding good-old-boy network that still doesn't want women there."
When women were first admitted to the academy, a vast complex of buildings and training sites at the foot of the Rocky Mountains 15 miles north of downtown Colorado Springs, life for them was designed to be no different than for men.
Men and women eat, train and attend classes together and, after several years of separate living quarters, reside in coed dormitories, where the only distinction is that women have their own bathroom facilities.
The first year is especially difficult for cadets, who slog through a crucible of pre-dawn drills and shrill commands from upperclassmen in a typical military effort to break down bad habits, build up new ones and create a bond among cadets.
But many women say the absolute power upperclass males wield can give them heavier burdens that their male counterparts seldom face.
But problems arise, women said, when men demand that women comply with other commands that sound innocent enough at first but lead to unwanted sexual advances, such as an order to talk in private with an older male cadet.
"My daughter was ready to die for the United States," Shafer said. "She knew she could have been captured by an enemy, raped and pillaged in war. She did not expect to be raped and pillaged at the United States Air Force Academy.
"It's just unbelievable how she was taken advantage of. It makes me sick."