COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – In testimony that left rape victims aghast, former commanders at the Air Force Academy (search) insisted Friday that they didn't ignore and certainly didn't punish female cadets who told them they had been attacked.
"We did not ignore sexual assault cases. I never blamed a victim, I never punished a victim," said Brig. Gen. Taco Gilbert (search), the school's former No. 2 officer.
The testimony came during a public hearing before an independent panel investigating how the assault allegations were handled. Gilbert's statement was echoed by Col. Laurie Sue Slavec (search), the former training commander, and Lt. Gen. John Dallager (search), the ousted superintendent who this week became the first officer demoted because of the scandal.
The denials angered former cadets in the audience, who later accused the former commanders of lying.
"We all had a jaw-dropping moment when they said they had never punished any of us for reporting a rape," Beth Davis said.
At least 60 women are believed to have come forward to report assaults since the scandal broke earlier this year. The military has launched at least three investigations, replaced top brass at the academy and put in a new system for handling assault allegations.
The head of the panel, former Rep. Tillie Fowler of Florida, told present and past commanders that cadets don't trust them. And she was doubtful any attempt to solve the problem would work without guaranteeing confidentiality to alleged victims.
"It may just go underground," she said.
Added panel member Marine Col. John W. Ripley: "Some of the victims we talked to were scared to death."
Fowler, whose panel was created under congressional pressure, said an investigation revealed that 19 male cadets accused of sexual assault have been commissioned as officers. Details of the cases were not disclosed.
"I am deeply concerned, not only for the victims, but that we're sending predators into our Air Force," Fowler said.
Two former cadets at the hearing said their attackers are now commissioned officers.
"My rapist is flying a plane I'll never get to fly," said Jessica Brakey.
The hearing came one day after the Pentagon for the first time singled out an officer -- Dallager -- for failing to address the scandal. He will retire Sept. 1 as a two-star major general instead of a three-star lieutenant general.
According to Dallager, the academy's program to deal with sexual assaults was considered an exemplary model by other universities.
"Perhaps we had a false sense of well-being because we had folks coming to us to model their program after ours," he said. He said he believed "everyone at the academy did their best with the information they had at the time to ensure the safety of cadets."
Gilbert told the seven-member panel that before going to the academy he was told by top brass to focus on containing a recent drug scandal and restoring discipline in the barracks.
"At every opportunity, and I mean at every opportunity, I met with cadets" to instill a sense of discipline, he said. "I was told there had been a sexual assault problem in the past but a highly effective program was in place."
Gilbert said he wasn't there long before he realized he wasn't getting enough information on the problem -- a claim that angered former cadet Sharon Fullilove.
"We were beating down their doors, trying to get meetings with them," said Fullilove, whose mother is an Air Force colonel stationed at the academy.
A recent Air Force review of the scandal concluded commanders hadn't paid enough attention to the allegations but held no one responsible.
Last week, new commandant Brig. Gen. John Weida said sophomore Douglas Meester, 20, would be the first cadet to be court-martialed on rape charges since the scandal broke earlier this year. Meester allegedly attacked a female cadet during a night of drinking; his attorneys have suggested the sex was consensual.