Why are our most elite military academies — West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy — still commissioning sex offenders as officers in our armed services? The Department of Defense’s newest report revealed a steep increase in sex offenses at these institutions, without a corresponding increase in prosecutions.
From that, we infer that graduates who have committed such offenses end up being commissioned, which is a green light to continue such behavior for the rest of their careers.
The Pentagon blandly refers to what 21% of military academy women experienced last academic year as “unwanted sexual contact,” but make no mistake: these are criminal sexual assaults, and they are occurring at the highest rate to date.
Given that a vanishingly small number (less than one percent) of such crimes result in sexual assault convictions — the vast majority are never prosecuted — the reality is that cadet and midshipmen sex offenders will continue to graduate and serve in our militaries’ leadership ranks, and in growing numbers. Something is gravely amiss, and that something comes down to poor leadership and lack of accountability for both that poor leadership and the actual sexual offenses.
Some may simply shrug off the abysmally high levels sexual assault and harassment that occurs at our military academies as symptomatic of the widespread sexual misconduct that occurs on college campuses across America. Yet the military academies are like no other university campus. Cadets and midshipmen — on active duty with military pay thanks to taxpayer dollars — are held to far higher standards than civilian fraternities and sororities. And for good reason. These young women and men are supposed to eventually lead the world’s most powerful military.
The military academies — selective and expensive taxpayer-funded institutions of higher learning — exist exclusively to produce career military officers. They do so through a highly regulated four-year regime of rigorous academics, military training, and athletic programs that differs greatly from life at an ordinary American college campus.
And cadets and midshipmen are subject to the same specialized code of federal criminal law that governs the rest of the military, which includes criminal sanctions for sexual assaults as well as for military-unique crimes such as conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline, disobedience of orders, dereliction of duty, sexual harassment, and even being late to work.
In other words, life at a military academy is highly regulated and, as one of us knows from first-hand experience, damned tough. Given these institutions’ rigid disciplinary and regulatory environments, ones that claim to emphasize integrity and character-building, why is criminal sexual assault and harassment so prevalent?
It has been almost exactly twenty years since a congressional investigation publicly blamed poor leadership for the sexual assault scandal that rocked the Air Force Academy in 2003. Yet based on analysis of Pentagon data, impunity for sexual harassment and sex offenses remains the norm.
It seems institutional leadership — almost always filled by academy graduates — still shoulders blame today. Leadership is implicated due to dereliction in substantially improving these schools’ long-standing unhealthy cultures, and for failing to hold offenders to account for sex offenses and related misconduct.
In our experience, a sense of entitlement seemingly runs like an undercurrent through daily academy life. Cadets and middies are told they are “the best of the best” so often that some begin to believe it, entitled to military leadership as well as, for too many, to non-consensual sexual contact.
Furthermore, military academies remain corrupted by hyper-masculinity and gendered stereotypes. Note that lesbian, gay and bisexual students, not coincidentally, experienced higher rates of sex offenses.
Finally, insufficient accountability for misconduct such as under-age drinking continues to seemingly serve as a grave contributory factor to sex offenses. On that latter point, the Pentagon’s new report highlights that over half of the sexual assaults of the last year were linked to alcohol consumption. Given the demographics, that means that criminal under-age drinking often accompanies these crimes. It is surprising, to say the least, that academy leadership has been unable to control such illegal drinking in the most regimented and controlled places of learning and training in America.
Finally, it is highly ironic that in the roll-out of these appalling rates of sexual assault and harassment at the academies, the Department of Defense touted the looming military justice reforms as a remedial avenue. However, the Pentagon fought these changes tooth and nail for over a decade — regardless of who occupied the White House — only relenting in 2021 to removing prosecutorial discretion from commanders, and giving it to independent trained prosecutors, for a short list of primarily sexual assault-related offenses.
Until commanders are actually held accountable for their criminal dereliction of duty for failure of leadership – which will only happen when non-commanders have authority to impose such accountability — and greater structural change occurs through external supervision and changed leadership of these institutions, sex offenders will continue to graduate from the military academies.
Perhaps it’s time to consider whether military academies are even a good investment of our taxpayer dollars, given their failure to hold sex offenders responsible, and their failure to prevent high rates of sex offenses to begin with. Given that these failures come at huge taxpayer expense, it is time to finally clean them up, or close them down.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rachel E. VanLandingham, a 1992 Air Force Academy graduate, currently serves as president at the National Institute of Military Justice and as the Irwin R. Buchalter Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School, as well as a visiting professor of law at UCLA School of Law. VanLandingham served as deputy director for the Air Force Academy Department of Law from 2010-2012.
Retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, Of Counsel at Solomon Law Firm, currently serves on the board of directors at the National Institute of Military Justice. He is a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force and a former military judge.
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