‘Fighting is worth it,’ even in defeat, say midshipmen who reported sexual assaults

Here’s how low the expectations are among some of those midshipmen who have reported being sexually assaulted at the Naval Academy: After Thursday’s not guilty verdict for a former Navy football player charged with sexual assault, three such women said they were floored that the case got as far as it did. And they are in awe of the accuser for taking it to court at all.

They all said she had accomplished something important in the process, spurring badly needed reforms to the system, even though the accused, Midshipman Joshua Tate, was found not guilty of sexually assaulting her in a car outside an off-campus party in April 2012.

“Fighting is worth it,’’ even in defeat, said Annie Kendzior, who reported in 2011 that she had been sexually assaulted by two Naval Academy athletes in 2008. “I don’t want to say I envy her, because this is nothing to envy, but even a step towards justice is awesome.’’

The accuser hadn’t wanted to come forward at first and “anticipated there would not be fairness,’’ said her attorney, Susan Burke. The decision of the military judge, Marine Corps Col. Daniel Daugherty, was “completely expected from the get-go,’’ Burke said. “But it’s still a blow’’ to the young woman, who is now a 22-year-old senior at the academy and recently became engaged.

After the verdict, Tate’s defense attorney, Jason Ehrenberg, accused Burke of using the case to further her own cause, a stem-to-stern overhaul of the military justice system. Even some sympathetic to the accuser and the need for reform have questioned whether the case was strong enough for prosecutors to bring it to trial.

The prosecution argued that the woman was too intoxicated to have consented to sex, while the defense countered that she very well did know what she was doing and was lying to get back at Tate because she suspected that she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease from him. The judge said there just wasn’t enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the woman was too drunk to consent.

So was the case just too messy to go to court?

Not at all, according to the other victims I interviewed, who said they certainly don’t think that only cases that are clear winners should be prosecuted.

“Even if it’s not in your favor, it’s going to be in someone’s favor,’’ said Kendzior, 23, who left the academy to complete college elsewhere and is now a market researcher in Forth Worth. She feels some pride, too, in the fact that “all of us who’ve told our stories have gotten this for her’’ — an actual hearing in a military court, she means.

Kendzior waited so long to report, she said, because she feared being blamed for getting sports stars in trouble. She wasn’t wrong about that, either, as it turned out. “I wanted to stay, but the academy is cultish, and once you tell,” she said, “you’re not part of it any more.”

First she became a pariah, with only one friend who stuck by her at the academy. Then she became suicidal, at one point texting her father, “This might be my last day.” A few months ago, Kendzior told me that she was still receiving ugly messages from former classmates: “I got one the other day saying, ‘Are you a slut?’ ’’

But on Thursday, Kendzior said that while the verdict was “typical,’’ the accuser was extraordinary for going forward with the case. Two other victims who did not want to be identified echoed that feeling.

They, too, described becoming ostracized on campus after reporting the attacks. The accuser in the Tate case also has been shunned at the academy. When I interviewed her months ago, walking across campus with her was like walking with a ghost; no one spoke or even looked at her. She said then that the reason she decided to cooperate came down to this: “You should never keep quiet to keep the peace.”

One of the women I interviewed Thursday said she was awakened in the middle of the night and violated by an intoxicated friend of her roommate, who had come back to the room with her. She reported the alleged rape during the summer term of 2013. She also became suicidal after the attack. “It sounds so stupid, but I put an ad on Craigslist,” she said. “I wanted someone to do it for me.”

She, too, left the academy, and at 22 is enrolled in a university in her home state. Through intensive therapy, she said, she is getting better all the time. And at her new school, “it’s great that women aren’t divided into either b-words or sluts. In the military, you are one of those two things.’’

Thursday’s verdict came as no surprise, she said, but the accuser “made a huge sacrifice for other women and men who’ve had this happen at service academies.”

And a woman who reported a sexual assault at the academy in the summer of 2011, only hours after a man she considered a close friend allegedly raped her, began crying when she heard that Tate was found not guilty. “She did what I couldn’t do, and what all the other girls who were raped couldn’t do, and that is a big deal,” she said.

That woman later dropped the case, “because I became a pariah . . . but people still called me a liar, and he got away with it.’’

The man she accused later flunked out of the academy, she said, and she left, too, after a suicide attempt on campus. “I tried to cut myself with a pair of scissors, but chickened out and called someone.” Even then, she wanted to stay and try to make it work, said the woman, now 22, “but my parents flew in right away and said I didn’t need this.”

She is now married, has a child and prays every day for the woman at the center of the case decided Thursday. At the academy, she knew her as “such a sweet girl’’ and hopes that she comes to realize that “she showed that no matter how powerful the system is, they thought they could just scare or bribe all the women into staying quiet, but they couldn’t.”

“I hope she knows a long line of women from everywhere are supporting her. Tell her I said I’m so proud of her.”

.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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