Women who reported being sexually assaulted or harassed at the nation's elite military academies testified before a Congressional panel Tuesday about having to live and work in close quarters with their attackers and the threat of retaliation they face.
Three of the women either decided to leave the academies or were forced out after coming forward. Only the fourth, a current midshipman at the Naval Academy, said the reporting and investigation process worked in her case.
Midshipman Sheila Craine, a junior at the Annapolis school, said she was overwhelmed by the support she received after reporting an assault that happened in her first spring at the academy. Craine said the case against her attacker ended with him being dismissed from the Naval Academy in the fall of 2016.
"I am confident in saying that the resources that were and still are provided helped me through the healing process," she said.
But incidents of what the military calls "unwanted sexual contact" ticked up sharply at the Naval Academy in the past two years, according to survey results published earlier this year. Fourteen percent of women at the school reported experiencing such contact, which can range from touching to rape. That's up from 8 percent in the last survey two years ago, although slightly lower than in prior years.
Congressional aides and victims advocates said they believed the hearing was the first time victims of sexual assault and harassment at the academies had testified before Congress.
Rep. Jackie Speier, the top Democrat on the panel, called the women's stories "heartbreaking and revolting."
"These cadets and midshipmen did nothing wrong by reporting their assaults and yet their chain of command failed them," the California Democrat said. "The chain of command that was supposed to actually protect them failed."
Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican who chairs the panel that held the hearing, said more work needed to be done to stamp out sexual assault at the academies.
"Cadets and midshipmen at the military service academies are told from the beginning of their tenure that the only way to succeed at the academy is to work as a team, and place their trust in each other," he said. "But when a cadet takes advantage of that trust in order to assault another, the sense of betrayal is profound, and the impact is often felt by the victim and the entire unit."
Formal reports of sexual assault rose for the fifth straight year, an outcome military leaders say is heartening because it indicates victims have growing confidence in the system and are willing to come forward.
Vice Adm. Ted Carter, the Naval Academy's superintendent, told lawmakers that the new numbers show, "that we still have much work to do to further effect and sustain positive change. We are not where I want us to be, nor where the Navy needs us to be."
Craine testified that she had to see her attacker every day because he was assigned to the same company she was. The attack created divides in the unit as other midshipmen felt they needed to pick sides, she said.
"People found out very quickly that something was going on and he was more liked than me," Craine said.
She was given the opportunity to move to a different company, which she took so she wouldn't face retaliation from her peers.
The other women who testified said they were not given the same support. One described seeing anonymous gossip about her case on the social media app Yik Yak. Stephanie Gross, a member of the West Point class of 2016, said that after she reported being sexually assaulted two different times, her superiors took action against her and she ultimately left the school.
"It was the idea that the chain of command had given up on me that sealed my actions," she said. "I blame a systematic failure of leadership."
Carter said the difference between Craine's testimony and that of a former midshipman who reported an attack several years ago and left the school showed the progress the Naval Academy had made.
Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., the head of the U.S. Military Academy, said his team had learned from the experience Gross went through.
But advocates for victims of sexual assault in the military say it's still more common for people who report being attacked to have bad experiences after coming forward.
Don Christensen, a former top prosecutor in the Air Force, said Tuesday's hearing was important to bring more attention to the stories of individual victims and convince the military of the scope of the problem.
"There's too many, either their contemporaries or the people who have the authority to make decisions, whose instinct is to blame the victim," said Christensen, who now leads advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.
Rep. Martha McSally said in some ways it appeared that the experience of women at the academies hadn't changed much since she graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1988.
"These dynamics were going on when I was there and they're still going on now," the Arizona Republican said.
McSally suggested the schools' "Lord of the Flies"-style hierarchy, with members of more senior classes having authority over those below them, might contribute to the problems. It is an arrangement she said is not mirrored elsewhere in the military, where servicemembers tend to need more experience before assuming leadership roles.