Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Air Force Cadet's Degrading Ordeal

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Air Force Cadet's Degrading Ordeal

Article excerpt

Just when you think it's a brand-new military, something happens to let you know that certain things do not change. In recent years, we have been made glad by the sight of U.S. troops doing good: guiding old ladies across streams in northern Iraq, entertaining ragged tots in other Third World countries. But the old military mind - redundant, miss-the-point, lead-headed - is still at work in some quarters, alas.

In The New York Times Magazine last Sunday, Laura Palmer tells the appalling story of a 19-year-old Air Force Academy cadet who was systematically brutalized for three weeks in the interest of preparing her for possible capture by the enemy in wartime. Her "captors" beat her, shook her, starved her and even simulated rape. It was all part of the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program that was mandatory at the academy. It sounds more like sanctioned sadism.

It is true that two women taken prisoners during the Gulf War were subjected to sexual harassment, although neither was raped. How does nearly being raped prepare you for the real thing? At the same time, the extreme measures described by Palmer seem as stupid as conditioning someone for cancer surgery by a practice operation. Lectures, particularly by survivors, would be more helpful.

Elizabeth Saum, a slip of a girl, called attention to herself by being, in the words of SERE supervisors, "too pretty and too confident." She is, according to the article, still pretty, but her confidence is gone. Her experiences at the hands of people she thought were on her side demoralized her.

An A student and accomplished swimmer, she was lured to the academy - she had a full scholarship elsewhere - by promises of postgraduate support for medical school.

The indignities she suffered were videotaped - the simulated rape by a smiling cameraman. Loudspeakers made a constant din, interrupted only by a resumption of violent questioning by her interrogators. A sign on her cell, according to Palmer, said, "This bitch likes to be beat." The Serbs might have been nicer.

The nurse-practitioner who examined Saum at the cadet clinic said she had never seen such injuries. When Saum reported how she got them to the director of the program, he suggested she take the training again and see it "from the other side. …

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