A few weeks before reporting to West Point with some fellow Houstonians
I was talking to someone recently about #metoo and there was a sort of a laugh and a shrug of indifference, “Yeah, well who has this not happen to?”
I found myself immediately getting defensive. The idea that sexual harassment is just women finding another excuse to complain and shouldn’t be taken seriously because it’s so commonplace; that every woman has to deal with it, as if it’s a common denominator and therefore null and void, made my blood pressure rise.
“I don’t think you know how damaging sexual harassment can be until you’ve experienced it,” I explained.
I want to tell you a story I haven’t shared with many people, including my own mother. First, I want to explain why I haven’t shared it:
I am proud of being a graduate of West Point. I am proud of serving in the United States Army. Besides my kids, these are my proudest accomplishments–above triathlon, running, cycling, making a mean rice crispy treat…you get the point. For me, speaking of this incident(s) seemed like I was complaining about the whole institution that I derive the largest sense of accomplishment in my life. The last thing I wanted to do was call into question the big “Green Machine” and invite criticism from others. Although the wording of the mission statement of West Point has changed a little since my years there, it is at its heart the same: The mission of the United States Military Academy is to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army. If I speak up does that mean I’m in some way calling into question the success of their mission statement? Further, in protection of my own self interest, does speaking up also invite speculation into my own behavior? The answer is yes and sadly when on the receiving end of sexual harassment that seems to be the sentiment of many women; the inability to advocate for themselves for fear of judgement. So instead, I kept quiet and hoped the whole thing would blow over or be forgotten. However, I can say this undoubtedly shaped my belief system and I can’t necessarily say if it was for better or for worse. It’s funny with age and reflection also comes focus and clarity. I guess that’s why I finally wanted to tell this story.
My brother Jeremy doing what Jeremy does…studying
I was in my first semester as a plebe (freshman) at West Point. I entered West Point right out of high school and I have a relatively late birthday, so I was on the younger side of my class at 18 years old. Now, I mention this to you with a bit of hesitation and almost embarrassment but I feel it brings context into the situation and into the mind of a fairly young female cadet. I was what you call a “late bloomer.” In high school my world revolved around running, swimming, and getting good grades. My high school was known for its academic rigors and I always kept a full schedule of IB and AP courses. So when I wasn’t at practice or at a meet, you could find me studying. While I was considered popular, I was not exactly social outside of school and practices. My schedule simply didn’t allow it. I also want to note that I never felt slighted or upset about this. The drive to succeed was internal and always greater than the drive to party or be cool or “in.” It’s safe to say that I marched to the beat of my own drummer, and I can look back on that girl and be incredibly proud. I will say that it also limited me in the ways of “experience.” I finally kissed a boy right after my 18th birthday because I didn’t want to go off to college without even having kissed someone. How embarrassing!! (As I now tell the whole world 🤗) Like I said above, I mention this to frame where my head was at as a freshman in college.
When you are a plebe at West Point one of your major concerns is who is in your chain of command and how much you will be hazed. There’s no way around it: West Point is freaking hard. There’s a reason why the very first day they tell you to look to your left and to your right and by the time you graduate one of those people won’t be there. Now, add an upperclassman intent on making your life hell with excessive hazing…that is a plebe’s worse nightmare. In reality, these upperclassmen are juggling the same academic and physical demands so one rarely has time to make you their “personal project” so this fear rarely comes to fruition. However, they can make your life more challenging by asking you knowledge (in particular every plebe is to know the menu for the next 3 meals, to have the front page of the New York Times read and able to discuss). The result? Well, for me and so many cadets, you rise to the occasion. You just learn to memorize all this stuff and come prepared. And if for some reason on the day you can’t, you hope and pray that no one will ask you anything. And if they do and you don’t know, you hope and pray they will let you off easy (i.e. go easy on the punishment or hazing).
So the first semester my plebe year as I was settling in I was pleased to realize that my team leader (yearling or sophomore directly in charge of me) and squad leader (cow or junior) were both fairly chill. Each Sunday I had to turn in a personal report to my squad leader. He lived directly next door to me and I would go through the whole production of knocking on his door 3 times, waiting for him to say “Enter!”, then going in the room and reporting while standing at attention and then giving the report, about face, exiting while spouting off our platoon motto. If we engaged in conversation I stuck to my 4 responses, “Yes, Sir. No, sir. No excuse, Sir. Sir, I do not understand.” If he asked me to expound I would but never losing my military bearings and always keeping the formality. In other words, I wasn’t coming in his room and flopping on his bed to hang out and talk about the last week. It was as formal and official as it could be.
Occasionally we would have tasks to do as a squad or platoon. One evening we were tasked to go clean out the basement. We were all down there cleaning and there was a box of condoms on the ground. He looked at them and kicked them towards me and said, “Hey Jones, you going to use these later?!” I felt my face turning red. I was immediately and mainly embarrassed. In my mind it felt like he was insinuating I was a slut. Is that what people thought of me? At West Point, especially for women, your reputation is everything. And unfortunately by the mere numbers of it all, being that there are 10 men for every one of you, you tend to stand out and invite every move to be speculated or judged. Being a stand out on the cross country team, tall, blonde and considered attractive it was difficult to “fly under the radar.” The problem is if people don’t *know* you it’s easy to jump to conclusions, especially considering the track and cross country team was large and I would have teammates (male and female) come to my room to check on me. This was actually quite common for teammates of different teams to do.
As the semester continued and I would turn my reports into his room, he continually became even “chiller” with me. He would joke around with me, or say “Dude, Jones at ease.” Which meant I didn’t have to stand at attention as we spoke; again I never lost my military bearings and always addressed him with a “Sir.” So this goes on a few months and one day I enter his room and he reminds me to turn in my pass for the Army/Navy football game coming up in a few months. West Point has strict accountability and plebes are allowed one pass per semester. Most plebes save it for the Army/Navy game because it’s a giant party and otherwise you have to drive back immediately following the game and sit in the barracks while 90% of the Corps is having a good time back in Philly. I say, “Yes, Sir.” Then he looks at me and raises his eye brows while nodding in his head and says in this creepy tone in front of his roommate, “Jones and I are going to have some fun at Army/Navy, aren’t we Jones??” I looked at him and could feel my face blushing: was he saying that we would have “together” or was this a have fun in a general sense? Was he expecting me to hang out and party with him, and hook up? (By the way definitely frowned upon partying with your chain of command.) Am I interrupting this correctly? I just spouted, “Yes, Sir,” and couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. I went back to my room and felt really embarrassed and conflicted. Was that what I thought it was? How do I turn down the advances of my Squad Leader, someone in my exact chain of command and who seemingly has so much “power” over me. He has a big hand in my military grade for the semester and he could make my life miserable. I asked a few of my teammates what they thought I should do. We pretty much came to the conclusion I should do nothing; just wait it out and try to avoid it and at the semester I’ll get a new chain of command.
Jeremy and I getting to meet up briefly during training at Fort Knox
As time went on things got more uncomfortable and more blatant. I would dread turning in my weekly report because I wouldn’t want to get in any discussion, which unfortunately wasn’t an option. He controlled the conversation. I couldn’t say,
“Hey dude, you’re making me super uncomfortable,” not could I choose to just ignore him. Simply put I felt because I was powerless. The sad part is at some level I felt responsible; he must think this about me because the teammates that come to my room must be misinterpreted as something more. This is my fault.
One day in formation he came and was hovering around me as I stood at attention. He was joking around and then made the gesture with his mouth and tongue of making a blow job. I was mortified. I was disgusted. And as a plebe, my head and eyes were to remain forward when what I really wanted to do was look around and yell, “Did anyone else just freaking see that??” I went to practice again that day, complaining that I was just in a lose/lose situation. The plan to just wait out and ignore was becoming increasingly more difficult. This was beginning to weigh heavily on me and I had absolutely no idea how to navigate it, but again the best solution I could come to was to do nothing and simply wait it out. I didn’t talk to anyone in my company about it, I don’t think I even told my roommates. My biggest fear was what so many women fear and that’s, “Well, what did you do to provoke it?” I didn’t want to make it a bigger deal, I just wanted it to be over.
One of my teammates I confided in was 2 years older than me and actually my best friend from high school. Caroline knew my distress and told my brother, Jeremy and another member of the track team, Dave. All of this was unbeknownst to me. All I knew was the next time I went to formation, my usual chill squad leader was very angry, in my face and overly hazing me. Right then I knew…something has been said to him and this is retaliation. The quick 15 minute formation felt like hours as he got into my face and was yelling whatever it was he was yelling. I got to lunch and went to my team table. I stood at attention behind chair waiting to take seats with tears streaming down my face. Caroline asked if it was my squad leader and I said, “Yes and he knows and he’s very angry.” At this point Jeremy walked by to check on me–again I had no idea he knew what was going on. He looked at me then went to Caroline, exchanging a few words and went on to his table. I sat there, feeling like my world was crushing around me. So this was going to be the rest of my semester? My squad leader up in my face yelling and screaming? My military grade officially down the drain?
After lunch we returned to our rooms and I’m obviously very upset. I think at this point I finally told my roommates what had been going on. We suddenly heard a ruckus and I realized it was yelling next door in my squad leader’s room. And I’m not just talking yelling, but a voice so loud and so angry we were all wondering what the hell was going on. After several minutes of this, I heard his door slam open and then slam shut as someone stormed out. I peaked my door open to see and I’ll never forget the image I saw. It was Jeremy walking away from his room, his body puffed up as if he was walking away from a fight. I have to mention that Jeremy is a big guy, over 6’2″, broad shoulders and at the time lifting a lot. I couldn’t believe it. He had just tore into my squad leader, which technically was a person that out ranked him since Jeremy was only a yuk (sophomore). I was a combination of proud and thankful to petrified knowing the cat was out of the bag.
A few of the plebe teammates from track
It all happen very quickly after that. My platoon sergeant came to talk to me and he was genuinely one of the best leaders I had my entire time at the Academy. He was concerned, kind, and compassionate. I had to go to my actual Company Tactical Officer, a Captain. This is intimidating for any plebe. He was much more cut and dry, trying to just get the facts. He was actually an Air Force Officer and I remember it felt like he was just reading off a checklist and didn’t really actually care. He told me at that point there would be an investigation.
Now, here is the kicker. During the investigation I was to not be around my squad leader, so they decided to remove ME from the company. Yes, that’s right. I had to go collect a few belongings and then I was sent somewhere else until it was done meanwhile my squad leader stayed in his room with the company. I don’t know what the rationale behind this was–merely protocol? I’m not sure but I can say it made me feel isolated and like I was the one being punished. I was already embarrassed about the whole thing and now my fear of people knowing and inviting speculation into my life was coming true. “What kind of girl is she?” “Well, there’s 2 sides to every story.” People were talking. People had opinions. I think one of the most damaging effects I felt (even if it was only in my mind) was that people thought I was the type that went around complaining or whistle blowing every little incident. In a place that is 10% women, you are already an outsider. Women had only been at West Point 20 years at that point and I felt a pressure to represent women well, to fit it, be cool…just “one of the guys” so to speak. I guess the bottomline is I just wanted to be accepted and respected.
Once the investigation ended my squad leader was ultimately removed from the company and sent to another company. I went back to my room and resumed “normal” cadet life. I didn’t talk about it with anyone. I just hoped with time people would forget the whole thing. I hoped I would forget. My senior year I actually wrote about it for my sociology class–I don’t remember why. My professor walked into class one day and went to the chalk board and said something like, “Now this is what I am talking about,” and in big letters wrote my name and the title of my paper on the board. I could feel the blood rushing to my face, the embarrassment coming over me all over again. However, I remember thinking if it resonated with this big, bad ass tanker Officer maybe it was worth sharing one day. Ironically, I saw that professor years later in Kuwait in the dining facility. He was now a Lieutenant Colonel and he actually brought up that paper. As a tanker he had only been in units with men and he thanked me. That meant so much to me.
I think back on this time. I grew up with 3 brothers and let me tell you, they can be as raunchy as they get. What made the incident so damaging was this was a person in a position of power and taking advantage of that power when I truly was completely vulnerable. And like so many that decide to either speak out or don’t speak out, there’s a fear of the consequences for taking a stand. I found out later the way he was even “turned in” was that Dave from the track team told his Company Tactical Officer, who in turn let mine know. It’s ironic because I never lodged a formal complaint out of fear–and that’s just wrong. I believe removing me from the company for the investigation was wrong. But if we don’t speak up, then how will anyone ever learn? I’m glad the #metoo campaign is bringing awareness to sexual harassment. There’s so much shame and embarrassment for the victims in these scenarios and hopefully, like anything, a dialogue can help change that mindset. As for fearing I’m speaking out against West Point or the Army, I simply don’t feel that way anymore. This was an incident they handled quickly and swiftly and the best way they knew how. Just like any institution or person for that matter, nothing and no one is perfect. What matters is the willingness to learn and grow be better and I can say that happen in this case. I’m more proud than ever to be associated with a school and armed forces that strives for inclusivity of women. My greatest hope is that with more inclusivity these incidents become more and more isolated and that ultimately women are not afraid to speak. Like anything, without an open and honest dialogue we can never overcome the issue.