Alleged victim in Navy rape case: ‘This is still my school’

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 campus. “This,’’ she says on her way into Nimitz Library on Monday, “is my comfort zone,’’ where she spends most of the time she’s not in her dorm room or in class. Right now, though, one of the three former football players charged with sexually assaulting her at an off-campus party last year is using a computer in the middle of her comfort zone, and she has to walk past him to get to the cafe in the back corner of the building.

Thursday morning, the academy superintendent, Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, announced he had referred midshipmen Eric Graham and Joshua Tate to court-martial. He decided that Tra’ves Bush should not face one. The three who were accused each had contended that he was not guilty of any crime and that anything that went on the night of April 12, 2012, 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 Washington Post generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault, and other outlets haven’t identified her, either. But the questions she was asked at a public preliminary hearing in the case — whether she wore underwear to the party, for instance — “were more humiliating than I could have imagined,’’ she says. And they highlighted why critics of the military justice system argue that such cases should be taken out of the military chain of command.

Timeline

Past coverage: Naval Academy rape allegations

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.”

But she’s had “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. And 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. Though most ran from her, she has also had a hard time forgiving a couple of those who left her behind at the football house that night: “I could have been dead in a ditch” 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 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 said he could not comment on that view. But in an e-mail, spokesman Lt. Cmdr. John Schofield 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, 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,” Schofield wrote.

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 seeing 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.”

But 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 on the black, long-sleeved winter uniform the students switched to that day, she allows that 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.”

The academy never lost its top spot on the list of colleges she wanted to apply to — from the time she first made that list in the fourth or fifth grade, as her mom remembers it.

And nothing on the road ahead of her, the daughter figures, could be as bad as the nearly a year she kept from telling her mother anything at all about the party or all that’s followed, though they talk on the phone every day.

Right after she woke up 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 mom said in a telephone interview that she knew something was wrong but 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 on it, “I’m kicking myself in the hind end,’’ her mom said, because her daughter is an athlete, too, and it didn’t make sense at all. The rest of their family still doesn’t know about the charges.

And even now, her daughter puts a relatively benign spin on her isolation at school: “There are some great midshipmen here, and the vast majority of those great midshipmen prefer to remove themselves from this kind of situation because there’s a stigma.” Sometimes, she sounds almost resigned: “We have a saying” in the Navy. “If not me, who?”

Still, things are a lot better than before she decided to cooperate with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, she 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, because they knew she didn’t want the case to go forward and wouldn’t complain about being bad-mouthed.

No one does that to her face now, though “there are still people reaching out to my friends and saying stuff.” 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 but I didn’t know how they felt” in similar situations because they didn’t tell her. “You don’t want to say, ‘I’m struggling; life’s hard.’ ”

She’s more than a little surprised to have found someone like her boyfriend, who now attends Columbia University: “I don’t know how many men would deal with this.” Before last month’s Article 32 hearing, he received a text from a football player he used to know pretty well, begging him to persuade her not to take the stand.

Both he and her mother came to the hearing, but neither sat in on testimony because she begged her mother not to; her boyfriend kept her mother company as they waited to spend time with her during breaks in the long days of questioning. She still flashes back to a defense lawyer asking her how she “performs certain activities” — oral sex, she means, and can’t believe it.

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.

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