Julie Jargon

(WOMENSENEWS)–When her editor suggested she check out a potentially explosive e-mail, Julie Jargon, a reporter for the Denver alternative weekly Westword, was taken aback by what she read.

In the October 2002 e-mail to Westword, an Air Force Academy cadet alleged she had been raped by a fellow cadet and that the academy had done little to address her complaint.

“What she said was so shocking,” said Jargon, now a 29-year-old writer at Crain’s Chicago Business. “It was kind of this plea for help. That someone would take that risk and write someone an e-mail from their academy account made it seem to me that this was someone who had tried everything else and wasn’t getting anywhere.”

In the months that followed, Jargon dug patiently as she collected victims’ stories and Air Force records to write “The War Within,” a 9,700-word report that began a series of articles about a sexual assault crisis that had long plagued the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

In “The War Within,” Jargon detailed the experiences of three young women who described how they had been sexually assaulted by other cadets at the academy. Their experiences, she found, were indicative of a culture that discouraged victims from coming forward and sometimes punished those who did.

Promises to Improve Record

The January 2003 article began a frenzy of national media attention and drew promises from as high as the Pentagon to improve the academy’s methods of preventing and responding to sexual assault.

Within a month, two U.S. Senators, Republicans Wayne Allard of Colorado and John Warner of Virginia, asked the Pentagon to investigate reports that dozens of cadets had been sexually assaulted since 1993.

A few months later, a survey by the inspector general of the Defense Department found that nearly 1 in 5 female cadets said they had been sexually assaulted in their time at the academy, while more than 7 in 100 had been victims of rape or attempted rape.

Nearly 7 in 10 female cadets also said they had been sexually harassed. Of those who reported a sexual assault, more than 45 percent “indicated experiencing reprisal of some kind,” according to the survey.

Following the article’s publication, current and former cadets came forward, alleging they faced indifference or even censure for reporting sexual assaults. Soon after, top officers at the academy–including its superintendent, Lt. Gen. John Dallager and its commandant, Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III–were reassigned.

The War Within

In “The War Within,” Jargon described the experiences of three young women who described how they had been sexually assaulted by other cadets at the academy in Colorado Springs.

After one 21-year-old senior at the academy reported she was raped at a party by a cadet she knew, her commanding officer ascribed some blame to her for being drunk and going to a room alone with a man. He later defended his reaction in a written response to Jargon.

“‘She did engage in some very high-risk behavior that night,'” Gilbert wrote in e-mails that were later published in Westword. “‘Again, the behavior in no way justifies what happened to her, but when you put yourself in situations with increased risk, you have to take increased precautions to mitigate those risks.

“‘For example, if I walk down a dark alley with hundred-dollar bills hanging out of my pockets, it doesn’t justify my being attacked or robbed, but I certainly increased the risk by doing what I did,'” he wrote.

Another female cadet was removed from the academy for behavioral problems after she reported a rape, according to the article. A third cadet left the academy around the same time. Each cadet claimed the officials did little more than sweep her allegations aside or, in one instance, even retaliate against her by using her post-assault mental state to push her out of the academy.

An Air Force report said that officials internally called for an investigation into sexual assault claims in early January, weeks before Jargon’s article appeared. Nonetheless, “The War Within” was the first major article to call attention to women’s stories in about a decade, when a cadet’s report that she had been raped by a group of men received high-profile coverage.

“It seemed pretty clear that there were problems that dated back at least 10 years,” Jargon said. “That became kind of the crux of the story.”

The Jargon piece would eventually garner international attention and high-level avowals of reform, yet the media response in the first few days after the article’s publication was subdued, despite the women’s powerful stories.

“I was expecting the other papers to pick up on this and no one did for a couple of weeks,” Jargon said. “I thought it was pretty big news.”

But then a local ABC affiliate aired its stories, The Associated Press picked up the story and the national media took notice. But that didn’t come before feedback from current and former cadets began to trickle in to Jargon, saying they too had been assaulted and wanted to contact other victims.

Jargon Receives Many Awards

Jargon was well rewarded for her tenacity. Earlier this year, Investigative Reporters and Editors, a national journalism organization based in Columbia, Mo., awarded her first place for investigative reporting among weekly newspapers. She also received the National Reporting category of the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, given to journalists under 35 years of age, for national reporting. She placed in the Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism, given by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

The stories were the type of journalism Jargon set out to practice after graduating from the University of Colorado and first working at the now-defunct Boulder Planet and then Westword.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than knowing something you’ve written has changed something, hopefully for the better, whether it’s in some small way or in a big institutional way,” Jargon said.

Now she awaits the results of a final report from the Defense Department’s inspector general.

“It may be too soon to tell how much things really will change there,” Jargon said. “It’s hard to know if it’ll really make the place better for other female and male cadets.”

Karen Shugart is a journalist in Georgia.

For more information:

Westword–The War Within
Run date: 1/30/03:

Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Defense–
“Initial Sexual Assault Survey Findings” August 21, 2003
(Adobe PDF format):