COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Four women who say they were sexually assaulted while cadets at the Air Force Academy praised the panel investigating the scandal, but had a "jaw-dropping moment" when former administrators said they never punished the women for reporting rapes.
The four were among 146 women who have reported being sexually assaulted at the academy in the past 10 years. They met Friday with an independent panel appointed by Congress to investigate how the assault allegations were handled.
"We're very impressed with the panel. We're very disappointed with the former administration," said Beth Davis, who came forward along with Sharon Fullilove, Kira Mountjoy-Pepka, and Jessica Brakey.
They said they were particularly incensed when Brig. Gen. Taco Gilbert, the school's former No. 2 officer, told the committee at a hearing that administrators "did not ignore sexual assault cases. I never blamed a victim, I never punished a victim."
"We all had a jaw-dropping moment when they said they had never punished any of us for reporting a rape," Davis said.
Each said she left the academy after being punished for reporting the attacks.
"It was difficult to leave. It feels like a part of us is still there. We can't figure out why we are not in our cockpits or not with our units right now," said Brakey. "My rapist is flying a plane and I'll never get to fly."
The four also disputed claims by Gilbert and former superintendent Lt. Gen. James Dallager that a system designed to protect the confidentiality of victims had prevented commanders from learning how serious the problem was. Dallager this week was demoted because of the scandal.
"At every opportunity, and I mean at every opportunity, I met with cadets" to instill a sense of discipline, Gilbert told the panel. "I was told there had been a sexual assault problem in the past but a highly effective program was in place."
Fullilove later disputed that, saying victims were "beating down their doors, trying to get meetings with them."
The cadets said they were optimistic that the committee, led by former Rep. Tillie Fowler of Florida, would get to the bottom of the scandal.
Fowler 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.
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.
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.