Eric Graham had pictured ship selection night at the U.S. Naval Academy many times. He imagined hearing his name and the ship he’d serve on — the reward for almost four years of demanding classes, grueling football practices and regimented Navy life. His parents, in Alabama, would be streaming it live on a Navy Web site.
But that was before Graham became one of three former Navy football players accused of sexually assaulting a female classmate at an off-campus party. Before his photograph — face somber, uniform brass buttons polished, American flag draped behind him — popped up everywhere from ESPN to the New York Times in reports about the charges against him and his former teammates, Tra’ves Bush and Joshua Tate. Before Graham’s aspirations to become a naval officer were derailed.
When ship selection night came in late January, Graham was hundreds of miles from Annapolis, in Norfolk, waiting out a snowstorm that had interrupted his long drive home to Mobile. He was staying with a friend who had recently graduated from the academy. They talked about watching it, but Graham, now 23, could not bring himself to turn on the computer.
“I had been waiting three and a half years to find out what I will do with my life,” he said later. “It was heartbreaking for me to sit there and watch it go by without me participating.”
The charges against Graham and Bush were later dropped, and Tate was acquitted in March, but not before the midshipmen became symbols of the U.S. military’s failure to curb sexual violence among its 2.2 million service members. The case helped fuel efforts in Congress to reform how commanders and the military justice system handle allegations of sexual assault.
While the political drama unfolded on Capitol Hill and cable news, there was a private one playing out in the insular setting of the Naval Academy, where 4,500 students live in the same dormitory for four years and eat together in the dining hall at the same time every day, where attendance at football games is mandatory and where violating the rules too many times can lead to expulsion.
All three of the accused midshipmen insisted that any sexual contact with the alleged victim was consensual. All three — and their accuser — stood accused of lying to investigators about what had happened at a “toga and yoga” party thrown two years ago. The alcohol-soaked evening at an illicit off-campus football house nicknamed “the Black Pineapple” had profound consequences for all four of them. And in some ways, the fallout is just beginning.
What remains of Eric Graham’s life at the Naval Academy sits inside a box in the middle of his childhood bedroom. The box is standard issue, given to midshipmen when they ship out, he explained. On the side, there is a place to write a destination. Normally, it would say Pearl Harbor or San Diego. His read: Mobile, Ala.
When he was at the academy, Graham worried that he would be sent home for different reasons. He’d struggled in his classes, especially as his legal troubles intensified. He quit football his junior year to concentrate on his grades. Economics had turned out to be a less-than-ideal major for him, but he picked it partly because his teammate Tra’ves Bush had. Like him, Bush hailed from a close-knit religious family in the South. They also played the same position: safety.
But while Bush was invited to play in all-star games, Graham fractured a leg his freshman year and didn’t make it off the bench much.
Graham had initially dazzled recruiters with his speed, running a 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds. He was recruited by Ole Miss and the University of Alabama, but he applied only to the academy. He wanted the discipline and the leadership training. The academy also offered a degree without the financial burden that had kept his mother, Juarlene Graham, working two jobs to send his two older siblings to college. His father, Melvin Graham, a former chemical plant worker, is disabled.
When Eric’s acceptance letter arrived, his mother said, “it was like a dream come true.” The family was devastated when Graham was charged last June with abusive sexual contact. They believed he was innocent.
So did the Mobile lawyer who volunteered to help defend Graham. Ronald “Chip” Herrington has known Graham since he was a toddler and had helped him get into the academy. He explained to his wife, Tammy, a former advocate for rape victims, that he wanted to represent someone accused of a sexual assault. Some news media reports were referring to the alleged incident as a “gang rape,” a mischaracterization that made the accusations sound even worse.
“I think he’s innocent, but you got to be okay with this,” Herrington said as images of the three accused midshipmen appeared on a television screen behind him
“Well, this is it,” he said, pointing at the TV. “Watch this. This is what I am in.”
“Oh my God,” his wife gasped. “It’s Eric.”
In his Linked In entry, Tra’ves Bush stands, unsmiling, in his uniform in front of a wall that reads, “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” Below the picture are the barest of details: “Surface Warfare Officer in U.S. Navy. Virginia Beach, Virginia.” The 23-year-old mentions his degree from the Naval Academy and the years he played football. But many of the thousands of items that pop up in a Google search of Bush’s name are about the case.
He’d finished his classes and was a week away from graduating last May when academy officials told him that he would have to wait until the sexual assault investigation was resolved. When President Obama addressed his class at graduation, telling them that “those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong,” Bush was living off campus and spending his days doing administrative work in the athletic department. It was the start of what he called “the toughest six months of my life.”
Before the charges, the only thing that had threatened his naval career was homesickness. He told the Annapolis Capital that he considered leaving after his sophomore year until some of his teammates talked him out of it.
By Bush’s junior year, Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo described him as one of the team’s most disciplined defensive players. He surpassed the expectations of recruiters, who found him at Strom Thurmond High School in Johnston, S.C., a town of about 2,300 that bills itself as the “Peach Capital of the World.”
After Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, the academy superintendent, decided in October that Bush would not have to face a court martial and dropped all criminal charges against him, school officials chose not to punish him further. He had already been disciplined under the midshipman conduct system for lying to investigators.
A week before Christmas, academy officials arranged a one-man graduation ceremony for him in Memorial Hall. Members of Bush’s extended family were among the standing-room-only crowd that looked on as he was commissioned. Afterward, there was a private celebration in Southwest Washington aboard the Sequoia, the former presidential yacht, where FDR hosted Winston Churchill and JFK celebrated his final birthday.
Bush also thanked friends and relatives on Facebook, including his fiancee, a high school science teacher he began dating a few months after the off-campus party. They are getting married in July.
“I had countless nights without sleep, numerous random breakdowns, and there was even a few times when I wanted to throw in the towel and give it all up,” he wrote on Facebook. “I can go on and on about how things happened . . . but I’ll just sum it up by saying that any curse that the enemy is trying to make you believe you are, don’t accept it because it’s not who you are.”
A few days later, Bush posted a picture of him and Graham with the caption, “Through it all . . . we still STAND!!”
For the accuser, a two-year ordeal is nearly over. On May 23, the poised 22-year-old will hear her name called and walk across the stage at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis to collect her diploma. She’ll take the oath to be a surface warfare officer.
Though she has never been publicly identified by The Washington Post or other news media outlets, almost everyone on campus knows who she is. Even when she was declining to cooperate with investigators, she endured whispered taunts, ridicule on social media and cold stares in the dining hall. Months later, when she changed her mind about pursuing the case, she became a pariah.
She remembers little of that night, she testified. She had downed shots of coconut-flavored rum before going to the football house to join more than 100 midshipmen and students from other schools. Her last clear memory of the night was dancing to the song “Cashin’ Out.”
The next morning, she woke up on a couch inside the house, disheveled, with knots in her back and no memory of how she got that way. She later learned that she was rumored to have had sex with at least three men at the party: Bush, Graham and Tate.
She knew all three. She had occasionally hooked up with Bush for sex, she testified. She and Graham were in the same class and saw each other at Bible study once. When they were freshmen, he’d helped her shake off an unwanted suitor at a club by pretending to be her boyfriend. She had met Tate, who was a year behind her, through another football player, and sometimes they traded joking tweets.
But she was not fully prepared for what she encountered when she took her allegations public and the three midshipmen were charged with sexual assault.
At an Article 32 hearing last summer to determine whether the case should go forward, she spent more than 20 hours on the stand, much of it under brutal cross-examination. She was asked whether she was wearing underwear that night and how wide she opens her mouth while performing oral sex — questions, she would later say, that were “more humiliating than I could have imagined.”
Her experience prompted Congress to change the Article 32 process late last year to protect future alleged victims of sexual assault from being pummeled by defense lawyers.
Her appearance at Tate’s trial in March was briefer and far less harrowing. The only time her expression softened was when a prosecutor asked which service she had selected. With some pride, she answered, surface warfare. She was at the academy when she learned Tate had been acquitted. The judge, Marine Col. Daniel Daugherty, said that the investigation had been hobbled by the woman’s initial reluctance to cooperate and that prosecutors had failed to provide enough evidence that she was too drunk to consent to sex.
The young woman, who’d been disciplined by academy officials for underage drinking, let her attorneys express her disappointment. She was focused on finishing her last semester and looking ahead to graduation. She’d gotten engaged to a former midshipman in February and was pinning photos of lacy wedding dresses with long trains to her Pinterest page.
More than one person suggested to her that the case was likely to follow her wherever she goes. But she was not convinced. Last fall, she told a Post reporter that the case had not “tainted my desire to serve.”
“I’ll leave here,” she predicted, “and people won’t know.”
A few weeks after his acquittal, Josh Tate returned to Bancroft Hall for the last time. He stuck out, dressed in a polo shirt and jeans. A civilian.
Rarely during his time in Annapolis had he felt so different from those around him. But he didn’t care. “I felt free,” he said. “When you wear a uniform, you’re government property. I felt like me again, not part of something, as they say, more than yourself.”
He’d been an outsider before, when he left his multiracial Nashville middle school for a mostly white Christian prep school. Many of his new classmates, he noticed right away, enjoyed advantages he didn’t have.
Tate, now 22, was initially raised by his grandmother. His mother lost her parental rights for a time, and his father was in prison for selling drugs. He remembers seeing him only once.
When Tate was about 10, he and his younger sister started living with their mother again. He described his relationship with her as “complicated.” For the last two years of high school, he moved in with the Rays, the family of a classmate, in an arrangement he compared to the one in the movie “The Blind Side.” Kaka Ray said she and her husband came to consider Tate their second son. The day the verdict was read, she was sitting behind him, wiping away tears.
Tate had originally heard about the academy from an older teammate who ended up there. The discipline and structure appealed to him. “It’s what I needed,” he said.
He majored in the math-heavy general sciences, hoping eventually to be assigned to a ship or a submarine. But he found the demands on his time made it harder to do well academically. In the back of his mind, he said, “I questioned, ‘Is this really my calling in life?’ ”
He poured his doubts and stress into football and made the traveling team as a 203-pound outside linebacker. But his determination to stay at the academy waned during the sexual assault case.
He told his grandmother about the investigation. But when he was charged, he said, he couldn’t bring himself to call her. “I didn’t know how to tell her about it,” Tate said. Growing up, she’d made him sit through Oprah shows about football players accused of rape. “To go from that to being in that situation — how do you tell anyone about that?” he asked. She found out from the local television news.
After the charges against Bush and Graham were dropped, leaving Tate to stand trial alone, his attorneys cried bias. Miller, the academy’s superintendent, had pushed for a court martial against the advice of a military judge and his own in-house attorney. But Team Tate, as the crew of civilian and military defense lawyers dubbed themselves, was not able to stop the trial.
“I just really lost all faith and hope in the process,” said Tate, who’d taken his name off his Twitter profile and replaced it with “That Dude” in a nod to his unwanted notoriety.
After his acquittal March 20, he could have fought to stay at the academy. But by then, he said, he no longer wanted anything to do with it or the military. He agreed to leave voluntarily rather than face a fight over allegations that he’d lied to investigators. He received an honorable discharge and is not required to pay back tuition.
In his dorm room closet, he found his entire set of uniforms — dress blues, summer whites, working blues — pressed and ready to wear. He had paid hundreds of dollars for them with stipend money, so technically they were his to take. But he didn’t want any more reminders of the past two years. He had enough of them: the bag he packed in case he was convicted; the girls who turned him down for dates after a Google search; and his one-way ticket home to Nashville.
He left the uniforms in the closet.
At his grandmother’s house, he has settled into a purple-walled bedroom with the biggest bed. There are no more 6:30 a.m. classes or morning quarters formation. There are no math tests to cram for or mandatory mealtimes.
Instead, Tate gets up each weekday a couple hours before dawn to work out with a former high school coach. He wants to play football at whatever university he winds up attending. Then he spends eight hours working at a demolition site for about $10 an hour. The job is exhausting. There’s fatigue in his voice.
What he’s been through has changed him, he said. At the academy, he was taught to look out for his fellow midshipmen. He left with a different lesson. He is more suspicious of people’s motives now, including his own.
“I’m more mindful of the situations I put myself in,” he said, “and of the decisions I make.”
Every graduating midshipman ends his or her tenure at the academy with an elaborate diploma printed with the presidential seal. Eric Graham ended his last week with a DD Form 214, a Certificate of Release or Discharge From Active Duty.
Even though the charges against him were dropped, Graham agreed to leave the academy voluntarily rather than face conduct code violations for lying to investigators. He received an honorable discharge and is not required to repay tuition. With just one semester left, he was not given the option to finish his degree.
“It still hurts us,” his mother said. “He would be graduating [this] month.”
Graham plans to enroll at the University of Alabama, which accepted him soon after he got home. In the meantime, he’s been cutting hair to make a bit of money, taking care of his grandmother and babysitting his nephew.
His relationship with the Navy has been severed but not his bond with his friends in 1st Company. Together they endured plebe summer, 14 hours of sea trials, and countless hours in the library with books on thermodynamics and calculus.
This month, he plans to drive the 1,000 miles from Eight Mile to Annapolis to watch his comrades be commissioned as naval officers. He wants to be there even though he’ll watch his accuser hear her name called, collect her diploma and toss her white cap in the air along with almost 1,100 members of the Class of 2014. His class.
Witnessing her graduation doesn’t faze him. “I still don’t have any animosity toward her,” he said. “I just want to be there for my friends. They were definitely there for me.”