If Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel needed any more evidence for the military's sexual assault crisis, well, here it is. Three midshipmen in the Naval Academy's football program have been accused of sexually assaulting a female classmate, according to a Pentagon spokesman with knowledge of the allegations. A lawyer of the female midshipman provided a statement to The Washington Post, which described the ordeal of simply providing testimony to investigators at the Academy:
The alleged assault occurred in April 2012 at an off-campus house in Annapolis. The women woke up after a night of heavy drinking and later learned from friends and social media that three football players claimed to have had sex with her while she was intoxicated, her attorney Susan Burke said in a statement Friday. She said her client reported the allegations to Navy criminal investigators, but was disciplined instead for drinking.
The investigation remains ongoing, but the allegations in Annapolis throw even more light on the the military's ongoing difficulty with addressing sexual assault in its ranks — and at the Naval Academy in particular, where President Obama delivered a commencement address on May 24, during which he explicitly called upon the graduating officers to fight sexual assault in the military. ("Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong," he said.)
Indeed, this not the only recent case of sexual misconduct at the Maryland service academy. Friday's allegations surfaced three days after jury selection began for the trial of a 43-year-old Marine Corps Major named Mark A. Thompson, who was charged in September 2012 for aggravated sexual assault against a female midshipman, several counts of indecent exposure, and a slew of other charges pertaining to his prominent rank. Thompson, who is being tried in Washington, D.C., stands accused of assaulting the midshipman during a match of strip poker following a croquet match between the Academy and St. John's College staged in downtown Annapolis in 2011.
The timing of Obama's remarks, Friday's allegations, and Thompson's trial has not gone unnoticed. On Wednesday, Thompson's military-appointed chief defense counsel told The Military Times that he was concerned about the effect of Obama's commencement remarks on the jury pool, all of whom are military officers on active duty. "I wonder if that's going to affect the ability of the jury in this case to be fair and impartial," Marine Major Joseph Grimm said, referring to Obama's remarks. (The trial's judge, after polling potential jurors, openly disagreed with Grimm's theory.) The coincidence extends beyond the Naval Academy as well: within the past month, both a cadet and an enlisted instructor, both at West Point, have been accused, respectively, of assaulting and surreptitiously filming female cadets.
In the meantime, these allegations — and the reported reaction from military investigators — may furnish further rationale for far-reaching reform, part of which may include involving civilians in trials involving members of the military. Given Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's recent language on the issue (in recent speeches, he described sexual assault as a "scourge" and a "profound betrayal"), the picture of systemic injustice portrayed here could be enough to inspire even greater inquiry, and legitimate change, in the armed forces. President Obama has asked Hagel and Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to root out the problem, and the Senate is looking into protocol changes. But it's been a long May for the military: the Air Force's sexual assault prevention chief and his sexual assault arrest, the Army sexual assault prevention chief and his "abusive sexual contact," the Fort Campbell sexual harassment chief and his "stalking," and now more at the Navy. As Jack Nicholson once said in a fake military courtroom: "We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use 'em as a punchline."
What happens when you become the punchline?