Rank Defiled

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

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.

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."

Whether McLean booked the cozy quarters with sex in mind, whether the men conspired to ply Sparks with alcohol, whether Sparks could have stopped them, and whether the men believed she agreed to the sex—these are all unknowable. That is often true of date rape and the reason so few allegations make it to trial.

In this case, what emerges from the haze of accusations are much harsher repercussions for Sparks than for the sergeant, her equal in rank, precisely because she claimed rape. Both were hit for adultery, sodomy, and indecent acts; but only Sparks was charged with false swearing, one of the most serious breaches of honor in the military. It's the same offense that ultimately took down Kelly Flinn, the first female B-52 bomber pilot, whose trouble started with adultery in 1997.

Because McLean abused rank, he was punished most severely. In a court-martial, he entered into a plea bargain, admitting guilt to fraternization and indecent acts. He served six months in prison. Both the sergeant and Sparks went through noncriminal "Article 15" hearings, and the sergeant had a stripe taken away. He still has his career, though. She does not.

In the civilian world, failing to prove an accusation doesn't automatically imperil the accuser, but in the military it got Sparks convicted of making a false report.

By the air force's own admission, the investigation into Sparks's rape allegation focused more on her credibility than on finding physical evidence of any wrongdoing. "I don't know why she would want to tell this story," says Kevin Gilmartin, director of public affairs at Hanscom A.F.B. "The evidence in the inquiry supports the conclusion that Staff Sergeant Sparks was a willing participant in instances of sexual activity, not only then but at other times." In the civilian world, other times aren't supposed to count, and Gilmartin agrees they don't preclude an assault here either. But he brings them up again, and again, anyway: "Results of the command inquiry showed substantial evidence that McLean and [the sergeant] maintained separate sexual relationships over the course of several months. . . . The overwhelming evidence is that the rape allegation was false."

According to Gilmartin, that overwhelming evidence is threefold: the lapse of some eight months between the incident and the time it was reported, a "reliable" witness statement from a third party who claims Sparks bragged the morning after, and a failed polygraph test. The polygraphs were voluntary, and Gilmartin says they're not admissible in court. (Rape victims in particular often flunk them, because of stigma and self-blame.)

Sparks alone was charged with another offense, indecent exposure. Gilmartin says this relates to her bare breasts being on view for the two men. Don't the men's regalia count? Gilmartin couldn't say.

The "command inquiry" also homed in on Sparks's sexual history. In one of her statements she alleges a previous acquaintance rape, when she was a 19-year-old stationed in Europe. She had been drinking with friends when she ran into a co-worker and had a drink with him in his room. The next thing she remembers was him on top of her. She blacked out and then awoke to a different guy. She blacked out again to find two different men on their way into the room, at which point she screamed and ran off. The next day she confronted her co-worker. She says he confirmed that they had sex and then showed his friends in. "I asked him, 'Why did you leave me alone? Why did you let the other guys in the room?' " she says. "He said, 'You were drunk, you got what you deserved.' And that's what I believed."

The air force tracked this person down and sought comment—not to charge him as a suspect, but for testimony relevant to Sparks's case against the sergeant and McLean.

Advocates say the treatment of Sparks is hardly uncommon. "The problem of reporting and repercussions and secondary harassment is military-wide, happening across the board," says Terri Spahr Nelson, author of For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military.

So is the problem of pervasive harassment and assault. The Miles Foundation, an advocacy organization based in Connecticut, has a caseload of 15,000 military harassment, assault, and domestic violence claims. Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel (STAMP), co-founded by former air force captain Dorothy Mackey of Dayton, Ohio, is juggling 30 to 50 cases in any given month. "I have multiple army women calling me; I have multiple navy women calling me; I have men coming forward," says Mackey.  

Studies commissioned by the Department of Defense also reveal that conduct most unbecoming is rampant throughout the military. A 1995 survey of 47,000 active-duty personnel found that 55 percent of women and 14 percent of men had been sexually harassed or assaulted within the previous year. When asked about specific offensive behavior, the numbers shot up: 78 percent of women and 38 percent of men. The same survey revealed that 9 percent of women in the marines had been raped or suffered an attempted rape—again, just within the previous 12 months. Another survey, recently published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, found that over the course of their careers, 79 percent of female veterans surveyed had been harassed, one-third had been assaulted, and 14 percent of those who had been assaulted were gang-raped by co-workers. It also found troops were four times more likely to be raped if their supervisors looked away from sexual harassment.

Despite the prevalence of sex crimes, say advocates, the military justice system is ill equipped to handle the problem.

It's an insular world, with its own police, prisons, courts, and laws. An offender can be incarcerated and then discharged with no civilian criminal record, as was 22-year-old Robert Burdge, an air force cadet accused of molesting a 13-year-old girl during a week-long summer camp at the academy in 2001. Burdge was convicted of "sodomy with a minor," spent two months in the brig, and went free. The parents have taken legal action against the academy, saying air force officials asked the girl's friends at school for dirt on her.

While offenders like Burdge can be quietly let go, victims can suffer consequences much more damaging. Heather Barnett and Stephanie Kuklish—both 19 at the time—report being drugged and raped by at least three service members while stationed at a naval base in Meridian, Mississippi. Charges were never brought, but the women say the 2001 assaults were so brutal they both needed sutures; Barnett says she can no longer have children. Their scars go deeper. Both women were sent for psychological evaluations following the assaults—the military has its own doctors, too—and ordered to take a cocktail of antipsychotic meds. Four weeks later they were discharged for personality disorders. Now when either of them applies for a job, a background check reveals that they are mentally disturbed. Barnett, who wants to work in child care, has already been turned down for a position five times. "Basically, the world thinks I'm crazy now," she says.

Such psychological evaluations are common, say advocates. Nelson worked at a VA sexual-trauma counseling program and interviewed dozens of victims and counselors for her book. "We saw many of the women being discharged with personality disorders, and people don't just develop those," she says.

Advocates also argue the military has employed other means of discrediting victims.

A little-known document called "The Rape Allegation Checklist" was conceived by air force violent-crimes investigator Charles MacDowell to help police determine whether an "allegator" (his term) is being truthful. It included 57 yes-or-no questions: Did the victim claim the rapist had a gun? She got three points. Did the victim have scratches? Five points. Did she have financial problems? One point. With a score of 15 or less, the victim's story was "equivocal—evasive, ambiguous, uncertain outcome, of doubtful nature." With a tally of 16 to 35, the allegation was "probably false"; a total of 36 to 75 rates "false allegation." Anything higher was "overkill."

In other words, the more details the victim recalled, the more likely she was fabricating them. Even if she scored zero—perhaps she was unconscious during the assault—her story was "doubtful." See ya later, allegator.

The air force distanced itself from MacDowell and discontinued its use of the checklist in late 1992, after Congresswoman Pat Schroeder fired off a letter to then secretary of defense Dick Cheney. But based on victims' testimony, advocates believe the checklist is still widely used. "[MacDowell] tainted the water," says Mackey, "and when you poison the water you can't unpoison it."

The military also has its own rendering of doctor-patient confidentiality: There is none. Everything from counseling records to sexual history to details of an assault goes on file permanently and can be disseminated on a commander's whim. The permanence of a complaint is one reason so few academy cadets were willing to come forward. "It's not just your college experience, it's your entire career," says Cari Davis, director of TESSA, the rape crisis center in Colorado Springs.  

And in the larger military, it's not just your career, it's your entire life. In the same twisted logic that got cadet victims slapped with infractions for sex in the dorms, troops who report assaults are often charged with adultery.

A few weeks after the TDY, Sparks and McLean were given a talking-to. Quit whatever's going on, said their captain, quit it now and we'll forget it happened. Sparks wrote in her appeal statement that the sex had been continuing against her protestations, and she says she was grateful for the escape hatch. But rumors of the December "threesome" had already circulated around the tiny base, and in August 2002, when Sparks won a promotion to noncommissioned officer, someone snitched. She and the two men were brought before a new captain; they were under investigation for adultery. Sparks's promotion was on hold.

That evening Sparks put her two sons to bed and took a shower, using the minutes alone to figure out what she would tell her husband. She was in her bathrobe when an entourage of military cops, her first sergeant, and her husband's captain burst through the door. One of the men turned to Steve and said, "Leesa has something to tell you."

She was taken to a hotel for the evening, he had to turn over his gun, and the couple was issued a "no contact" order. "It's standard procedure," says Steve, an air force cop. "They're afraid the husband will kill the wife."

In theory, the trouble with adultery is that we can't have men and women flying multimillion dollar equipment and wielding weapons of mass destruction if they are not "honorable." But historically, enforcement has been inconsistent, with enlisted personnel charged more often than officers. And it's worth noting that adultery was rarely prosecuted before women were integrated.

Some question whether the criminalization of adultery has to do with honor at all. "It's not just for the sake of military discipline, although it's argued in those terms," says Cynthia Enloe, a professor at Clark University who's written extensively on militarism and gender. The 50-year-old Uniform Code of Military Justice—which came along well before female soldiers—was cosmetic. It was designed "to perpetuate a certain kind of masculinity," she says, "part of creating a civilian belief in the propriety and legitimacy of the military elite." Underneath that facade, she says, is militarism's age-old exploitation of women, whose bodies have historically been taken by force as spoils of war or purchased for rest, relaxation, and reward.

Theory aside, the military's stance on adultery frustrates the prosecution of rape. Perpetrators can easily be accused of the nonviolent offense, which keeps their criminal records clean and the official rape incidence low, and fear of recrimination discourages victims from reporting. "Adultery [charges] came up again and again as one of the retaliatory actions when women reported sexual assault," says Teri Spahr Nelson.

Even though Sparks was already being investigated for adultery, it wasn't until she filed the rape report that the air force threatened a court-martial. Depressed over the ordeal, she spent Thanksgiving week in a VA hospital and was diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder and as "borderline with dependent personality disorder." Sparks and her husband eventually spent $25,000 of their own funds on a civilian attorney, who pressed on with the rape charge and at least kept her out of jail.

The air force, for its part, says it spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars investigating the case. That's a lot to spend for honor.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >