Female cadets testify about being sexually assaulted at their service academies
WASHINGTON — West Point cadets Ariana Bullard and Stephanie Gross were in Gross’s dormitory at the U.S. Military Academy when a fellow male cadet, who was drunk, burst into the room.
Bullard left the room as curfew approached and thought Gross would be able to get the male cadet to leave. A few minutes later, Gross called, hysterical.
The two women had already survived sexual assault and harassment at the academy, experiences from which they bonded and became friends.
“I immediately went to her room and saw the distraught, battered state she was in,” Bullard said Tuesday. “With new bruises forming on her neck and chest, she told me repeatedly she would never report again, that no one would believe her, that she had no faith she would be taken care of.”
Bullard and Gross were two of four cadet women who testified Tuesday to the House Armed Services subcommittee on personnel about sexual assault and harassment at the military academies and to talk about how they were treated after reporting that they were assaulted.
Gross said she had been raped by a fellow cadet during the spring of 2013, her freshman year. The attack was violent enough that she had needed emergency pelvic surgery. Gross said she reported the incident but a subsequent investigation by military leadership at the academy did not find enough evidence to bring charges against the accused male cadet.
Bullard, who was recruited to the academy as a top swimming athlete, said she was isolated after she reported being sexually harassed by other swim team members. After reporting the harassment that she faced during fall of 2013 and through the next spring, she was ostracized and forced to train alone.
“No one said a thing about me swimming by myself,” Bullard said.
The three service academies -- West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy and U.S. Air Force Academy -- are required by law to report annually the number of sexual assault incidents occurring on their campuses. According to statistics from the most recent 2015-16 academic year, which were released in March by the Department of Defense, the number of reports had dropped to 86 in the 2015-16 academic year from 91 reports in 2014-15.
However, the percent of cadets experiencing unwanted sexual contact rose to 12 percent among women, up from 8 percent the previous year. Also, 1.7 percent of men reported unwanted sexual contact, an increase from the 1.1 percent in the previous report.
“Since the last report in 2014, fewer students at the service academies have reported sexual assault and harassment but the estimated rates of unwanted sexual conduct have increased,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. “Both of these are trending in the wrong direction. One reason could be the ostracism of sexual assault victims.”
Speier said the academies have to do more to change the culture of harassment at the academies and find ways to reduce retaliation, so that failures at the academy level don’t become future failures within the active-duty ranks.
When Bullard tried to help Gross, she said she believes her past history of filing complaints was used against her.
“I was forbidden to accompany her [Gross] to the hospital, and forced to sign a confidentiality agreement,” Bullard said.
Gross’ assailant was found guilty of assault, but not sexual assault, Gross told lawmakers, which she thinks occurred because the criminal investigators did not take DNA samples from her clothing.
Bullard said she encouraged Gross to file the second report. More so, with each report that Gross filed about her second assault, she said a perceived disciplinary action would follow, such as being required to take a mental fitness test or drug test.
“The system failed once again,” Bullard said.
She and Gross were prohibited from socializing with each other and continued to face disciplinary actions, they said. By January 2015, Bullard said she felt she had no option but to resign from the academy. She said the process normally takes a month. She received her dismissal in one day.
“I collapsed in the barracks,” said Bullard, who was hospitalized.
She was removed from West Point the day she left the hospital, wearing nothing more than the T-shirt and shorts that she had been wearing when she was admitted. All of her belongings had been packed up, even her identification badge. Military police escorted her to a plane.
Gross said she sought help from West Point’s leadership to hear her case and draw attention to the retaliation. But she was denied an audience, she told the lawmakers, including from the academy’s superintendent, Army Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen.
“My entire chain of command denied me,” Gross said.
She also resigned from the academy before graduation.
Both women were honorably discharged, but are working with Speier’s office to regain entry into West Point to finish their degrees. They said the academy has instituted some changes to the way victims can file a report and get legal assistance and that they see improvements.
But to get at the core of the problem, they believe they are part of the solution and must address it head-on.
“I think Stephanie [Gross] and I are probably the best people to help support this cause,” Bullard said.
Gross said she also wants to go back to West Point.
“I feel like I can’t come to Congress and tell you these problems … without trying to fix them myself,” she said.