She would have done almost anything, she says, to have avoided becoming “that girl.” But that’s who she is now, and as she approaches the Naval Academy gate to meet a reporter, the guard who had just been so chatty and welcoming stops smiling.
It’s a small school with a big reputation, where everybody in a uniform knows one another. But no one acts like they know her any more; no one speaks or even looks her way as she crosses the Annapolis, Md., campus.
“This,” she says on her way into Nimitz Library, “is my comfort zone,” the place she spends most of her time when not in class or her dorm room. At this moment on Monday afternoon, however, one of the three former football players charged with sexually assaulting her at an off-campus party is using a computer in the middle of her comfort zone; she has to walk past him to get to the cafe in a corner of the building.
Two of the midshipmen, Eric Graham and Joshua Tate, will face court-martial proceedings, the academy’s superintendent announced on Thursday, overruling the recommendation of a military judge. Vice Adm. Michael Miller decided that Tra’ves Bush will not face trial; all charges against him were dropped.
All three of the accused have contended that any sex that may have occurred on April 12, 2o12 was consensual. Their fellow student was not too drunk that night to give consent, either, their attorneys have argued, but has been exaggerating her level of intoxication to avoid embarrassment. If that was the plan, it hasn’t worked.
The questions the woman was asked at a public preliminary Article 32 hearing in the case — whether she wore underwear to the party, for instance — “were more humiliating than I could have imagined,” she says. (The Washington Post generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.) And they highlighted why critics of the military justice system argue that such cases should be taken out of the military chain of command.
Whatever happens with the case, she’s determined to gut out her remaining seven months at the academy and become a commissioned officer despite what she calls her “complete and total isolation” on campus. On Monday, she said she wants justice, too: “If someone committed a heinous crime, they should be held accountable.” She could not be reached for comment after Thursday’s decision was released.
She’s made “an adjustment to a different lifestyle” since the morning she woke up at the football party house without her phone, her purse, her friends or much memory of the night before. With her back to the cafe entrance, she turns instinctively each time someone comes in, to see who it is. Each time, it’s a face that turns away from hers.
At a table near windows that open onto quite a view of the Severn River, she remembers how awestruck she was the first time she saw this place. “I couldn’t believe there were people who got to live here. We have to remember to be grateful” for that chance, she says.
When asked how her own chance changed after she decided to cooperate with a rape investigation that she neither started nor for a long time wanted any part of, she lets out a small, reedy laugh: “Well, prior to this I was a cheerleader. I don’t want to use the term ‘social butterfly,’ but I used to interact with lots of people.”
Now, “there are some things that I’ve written off,” like a social life on campus, though she has held on to “a very select few” friends. She has had a hard time forgiving a couple of those who left her behind at the off-campus football house that night: “I could have been dead in a ditch,” she says, for all they knew. Though “taking advantage of someone is never okay,” it also took her a long time to forgive herself for drinking too much that night: “I thought I was smarter than that. Maybe people will learn from my situation, but I don’t talk to enough people to know.”
Now she doesn’t put her name on her dorm door, to discourage unpleasant drop-bys, or even attend her old prayer group, though she says she has never prayed harder than in the past 18 months. She has only spent one weekend on campus in that time; she decamps every Friday for the home of a woman in town who called her lawyer, though they’d never met, to offer a safe harbor.
Asked about the perception that those who report sexual assault face ostracization at the elite academy, a spokesman responded that he could not comment on that view and pointed to training underway to improve “the Brigade’s culture toward human dignity and mutual respect, specifically concerning gender relations.”
“In comparison to other institutions in the United States,” wrote Lt. Cmdr. John Schofield, “the Naval Academy has the most robust victims’ advocacy program, the most detailed mandatory training, the largest proportion of student involvement in said training and the largest sexual assault prevention and response office.”
Last fall, the young woman was required to attend football games, where some of the cheers were directed at her, she says. But since the case made the news, she no longer has to do that.
On Saturday, the 21-year-old watched the Navy-Air Force game at the local woman’s house — and yelled for Navy to win. She was a cheerleader because she loves football, after all, and “this is still my school.”
“A lot of great things go on here, and this situation doesn’t define this institution,” she says, “nor does it define me.”
Her mother, her lawyer and the former midshipman she started dating this past summer — two weeks before he was due to leave the school — have all at different times asked her whether she’s so sure she should stick it out. “I worry,” says her boyfriend, a Navy veteran who enlisted at 17, in a telephone interview. “Because I know foul play does go on, when you’re not making everyone look good.”
She has promised herself that she’s going to graduate, period. “I really look forward to joining the military,” she says, “and I don’t think it’s tainted my desire to serve or my love for my country. I’ll leave here, and people won’t know.” A minute later, tugging on the tight collar of the black, long-sleeved winter uniform students switched to Monday, she allows it might not happen quite that way: “I’ve heard more than once that these things follow you. But I have aspirations to be the leader I came here to be.”
Nothing on the road ahead, she’s decided, can be as bad as hiding what happened, and its aftermath, from her mother for nearly a year.
Right after she woke up as the butt of jokes, bragging and gossip on social media, she went home to visit her mom, who raised her on her own in their small town. Her mother knew something was wrong, she said in a telephone interview, but she didn’t know what. She noticed bruising on her daughter’s back and thighs, but accepted the explanation that “You know how clumsy I am; I fell down the bleachers.” Looking back, “I’m kicking myself in the hind end,” her mother said, because her daughter is an athlete, and the story didn’t make sense. The rest of their family still doesn’t know about the charges.
Life improved somewhat after she decided to cooperate with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the young woman says. Before that, students were angry that they had to have sexual-assault sensitivity training, and often she heard herself slurred with the word many women consider most derogatory. “They did and said as they pleased,” she says of her fellow midshipmen; they knew she didn’t want the case, reported by another student, to go forward and figured she wouldn’t complain about being demeaned.
No one does that to her face now, though “there are still people reaching out to my friends and saying stuff.” Before last month’s Article 32 hearing, her boyfriend received a text from a football player he used to know pretty well, begging him to persuade her not to take the stand.
Did anyone come forward to befriend and support her?
“No one did, no,” she says, cracking her knuckles one by one. “But what do you say to make it better? I have so many regrets, because I’ve always been there for my friends … You don’t want to say, ‘I’m struggling; life’s hard.’ “
Despite all the ugliness, however, she says she never second-guesses her decision to cooperate with the investigation: “You should never keep quiet to keep the peace.”
When asked whether she’d let a daughter of hers attend the Naval Academy, she pauses for a long time, then says she just hopes that by that time, her alma mater would have long since changed.