Rank Defiled

Date-Rape Case Shows Air Force Troubles Reach Beyond Academy Gates

On May 13, the military brought criminal rape charges against an Air Force Academy cadet for the first time since the revelation this winter of widespread assault and harassment at the school, willful ignorance among official leadership, and institutionalized victim blaming.

Air Force secretary James Roche, who expressed horror at the situation, vowed to bring the academy in line with the rest of the service. "This is not an air force problem," Roche told NPR in March. "This is an Air Force Academy problem."

Advocates were quick to point out the obvious flaw in Roche's damage control—that last semester's rapists could be today's decorated brass.

Former air force sergeant Leesa Sparks: "I was suicidal. Now I'm kind of numb."
photo: Leah Fasten
Former air force sergeant Leesa Sparks: "I was suicidal. Now I'm kind of numb."

The case of Leesa Sparks would also suggest the problem isn't so contained as Roche would like to think.

In air force lingo, Sparks was a "fast burner," quickly earning stripes and collecting awards. A veteran of the first Gulf War, she was promoted to technical sergeant last July with a test score that ranked her 12th out of 570 nationwide. Now she's packing up her cookie-cutter ranch on Hanscom Air Force Base, 20 miles outside of Boston, wondering what to do with the dozen or so plaques on the "I love me" wall her husband made for her, trying to reconcile the admiration she once had for the military—so strong it drew her to enlist at age 18—with the gut-twisting anger she feels toward it now.

What Sparks called sexual harassment and rape, the air force called adultery, sodomy, and false swearing. In March she was fined and demoted for these offenses, and on April 10 she was officially discharged—her 12-year career, her pension, altogether worth roughly $750,000, gone. "I was suicidal," says Sparks. "Now I'm kind of numb."

Allegations of acquaintance rape can be far from clear-cut, and the Sparks case is no exception. The evening in question involves Sparks and two men: her direct supervisor, Lieutenant Brandon McLean, and a staff sergeant. It is a classic "he said/she said" scenario, with intoxication, abuse of rank, and consensual relations thrown into the mix. For months, the three had worked closely together in an office environment Sparks describes as having a high sexual charge. She can't pinpoint exactly when the situation began to spin out of control, but it did. "It sucked me in or something," she says. The jokes got raunchier and Sparks started telling them; there was teasing, then kissing, then more—"innocent flirting," says Sparks. They had a "no-sex rule."

"It was never supposed to go anywhere," she says. "I was just flirting to get attention. I never wanted it to go to that next level."

In December 2001, Sparks traveled with the two men to a "TDY" (Temporary Duty Assignment), a conference in Florida. Lieutenant McLean had booked a villa with two bedrooms and a loft for Sparks, the sergeant, a female lieutenant, and himself—with the two women sharing a room—a blatant violation of the fraternization code. On the second day, Sparks wrote in her witness statement, she reluctantly spent three hours in the sergeant's room while he tried to coax her to bed and nearly succeeded, save for his performance anxiety. The next day, she wrote, McLean hinted that he hoped they'd have sex on the trip. She said she did not want intercourse and told him she had her period. Surprised it wasn't a deterrent, she confessed that she was a herpes carrier.

Looking back, Sparks says, "I think it was a lot of 'I don't know what to do. He's my boss, this guy is writing my annual report, and if I do anything it's going to jeopardize everything, the whole work environment will be ruined.' "

What exactly unfolded on the third evening, December 5, is murky. Everyone says there was drinking and various permutations of sexual contact, but no one agrees on the particulars of who initiated what or how, and whether Sparks was coherent enough to consent. Rum cocktails were mixed and consumed, the banter took on a familiar bawdy sheen, the female lieutenant stormed out, and the three ended up in bed together—those are established facts.

In her witness statement, Sparks wrote that she blacked out and came to with McLean "inside" of her. "What are you doing?" she yelled. "I couldn't help myself," she remembers him saying, before she blacked out again. At some point the two men high-fived each other, she and McLean both told investigators. Sparks awoke naked in the lieutenant's bed the next day, recalling fragments and feeling sick. She says she questioned Lieutenant McLean and recalls hearing that he'd penetrated her twice and that the sergeant had done it once. Sparks wrote in her appeal statement that when she questioned the sergeant, he laughed and said, "You're not going to turn us in for rape, are you?"

Reached by phone on May 21, McLean declined comment, except to say of Sparks's rape claim, "The accusations are false." He told investigators the sex was consensual and part of an ongoing relationship, one that continued past the trip to Florida.

Contacted by phone on May 19, the sergeant—who was given immunity in exchange for talking and who told investigators the sex was consensual—said he had "no comment at this time." His wife, however, did. "I consider this a form of harassment," she said, phoning back a few minutes later. "Don't ever call here again."

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