Navy Rape Hearing: Was the Midshipman Wearing Underwear the Night of the Party?

A woman at the Naval Academy, after reporting gang rape by football players, is put on trial. Meanwhile, an Air Force case shows how chain of command protects perpetrators.

A woman at the Naval Academy, after reporting gang rape by football players, is put on trial. Meanwhile, an Air Force case shows how chain of command protects perpetrators. Glynnis Jones / Shutterstock.com

At the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., the vilification of an apparent rape victim has taken over the past week, with all the pomp and circumstance of a judicial proceeding. At what is known as an Article 32 hearing—a preliminary proceeding that determines whether a case goes to court martial—a young woman midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy has been subjected to a humiliating barrage of questions meant to disparage her character after she reluctantly came forward to accuse three members of the academy’s football team of raping her at an off-campus party after she was incapacitated from drinking.

She said she started to piece together the story of what happened to her the next day, after learning of tweets and hearing from friends suggesting that she had had sex with several men that night.

After the first day of questioning, the Washington Post reported:

The accuser soon came under fire from Andrew Weinstein, an attorney for [alleged perpetrator Tra’ves] Bush, who bombarded her with questions about how often she lies and whether she was wearing a bra and underwear the night of the party.

And it got worse. As the Post’s Petula Dvorak wrote in a subsequent column:

They asked her to describe how wide she opens her mouth during oral sex. They asked her if she “felt like a ho” the next morning.

And Pentagon brass can’t imagine why only 3,374 of the estimated 26,000 recipients of “unwanted sexual contact” in the military dared to come forward in 2012, according to the Defense Department’s own report.

Then there’s the way in which commanders are known to cover for perpetrators, and to permit retaliation against victims. In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from an assault victim, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) last week released a series of emails surrounding the decision of Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of Third Air Force, to overturn the 2012 sexual assault conviction and dismissal from the Air Force of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, despite the pleas of Wilkerson’s direct commander not to do so. The documents requested under FOIA by the woman who accused Wilkerson were released only after Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) demanded that the Air Force comply with the request, according to the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.

Concerned that Franklin would reinstate Wilkerson, Brig. Gen. Scott Zobrist, commander of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy, where Wilkerson was based, urged his superior not to do so, according to Stars and Stripes, even if only to ensure that Franklin’s retirement benefits would be received by his family.

“That would be absolutely devastating in so many ways that I cannot even begin to consider it,” Zobrist wrote in the Feb. 19 email. “Having Wilkerson back on active duty at Aviano, even for one day, would … have a huge negative impact on morale, send a very negative message about how seriously we take sexual assault in the AF, and potentially call into question the effectiveness of our UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) system in general.”

“I hope I’m not out of line here, sir,” Zobrist continued, “but … I’m concerned that … reversing the dismissal will have major second- and third -order consequences, here at Aviano and around the USAF.

“Finally, the victim still works at the base and she deserves consideration, too,” Zobrist wrote. “Any change to his penalty will affect her as well.”

When Congress comes back into session next week, a battle over whether or not to remove the adjudication of sexual assault cases from the chain of command in all branches of the armed forces will be reignited, as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) continues to lobby her colleagues to sign onto her Military Justice Improvement Act (S.967), which would do just that.

She is opposed by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who included in the mark-up of the National Defense Authorization Act a measure pushed by McCaskill that would prevent the overturning of such convictions by commanding officers, who currently have the rather omnipotent power to do so. McCaskill has been outspoken in expressing outrage over the exoneration of Wilkerson, whose case was mostly built on the idea that he is a faithful husband and doting father.

After Wilkerson’s reinstatement and exoneration on the assault charge, it was revealed that he had fathered a child by a woman with whom he was having an affair.

But removing the power to overturn such convictions from commanders doesn’t change the fact that it’s the commanders who handle such cases, and commanders who determine whether or not a case should go forward. Those who advocate taking the authority to prosecute such cases out of the hands of the commanding officers of those accused of sexual assault say there is little hope that the military’s rape-culture crisis will dissipate until the immediate commanders of the accused are taken out of the picture.

And if the travesty of justice now taking place in the Navy Yard is any indication, that culture is very real.