God, sex, ‘military values’ and the U.S. Naval Academy

Most weekday mornings, as I make my short drive to the train station for my ride to Capitol Hill, I hear at least one plug on talk radio for the Navy Federal Credit Union. Part of the liturgy in these advertisements is an appeal to the “military values” that are said to make this financial institution so trustworthy.

Since I live on the south side of Baltimore, at the north edge of the Anne Arundel County military-security-industrial complex, I am used to hearing quite a bit debate about “military values” and what that term means, these days. Much of this news comes from the U.S. Naval Academy, which has seen more than its share of trouble in recent years.

Most of this news, logically enough, appears in The Baltimore Sun. However, the dominant newspaper in Beltway land printed a massive feature story the other day that clearly was meant to dig down into the heart of one of the nastiest of the recent scandals. That Washington Post story ran under the dry headline: “Naval Academy sexual assault allegations change the lives of four midshipmen.”

As implied in those words, this was one of those features that offered snapshots of the major players in this particular sexual assault case in the military, looking for common themes. This case — which received extensive coverage on ESPN and in other national news outlets — was summed up like this:

All three of the accused midshipmen insisted that any sexual contact with the alleged victim was consensual. All three — and their accuser — stood accused of lying to investigators about what had happened at a “toga and yoga” party thrown two years ago. The alcohol-soaked evening at an illicit off-campus football house nicknamed “the Black Pineapple” had profound consequences for all four of them. And in some ways, the fallout is just beginning.

So what was the common theme? What was the big idea in this provocative feature about — like it or not — military values? I have absolutely no idea, even after multiple readings.

On one level, this is simply another meditation on the role of alcohol in modern academic life, especially the ways in which binge drinkings blur the lines between hook-up culture and sexual assault. However, since I am writing about this “values” story at GetReligion, I was also interested in another unexplored angle in this feature. Here are a few clues.

First, there is this note about Eric Graham, who agreed to leave the academy after sexual-assault charges were dropped against him.

What remains of Eric Graham’s life at the Naval Academy sits inside a box in the middle of his childhood bedroom. The box is standard issue, given to midshipmen when they ship out, he explained. On the side, there is a place to write a destination. Normally, it would say Pearl Harbor or San Diego. His read: Mobile, Ala.

When he was at the academy, Graham worried that he would be sent home for different reasons. He’d struggled in his classes, especially as his legal troubles intensified. He quit football his junior year to concentrate on his grades. Economics had turned out to be a less-than-ideal major for him, but he picked it partly because his teammate Tra’ves Bush had. Like him, Bush hailed from a close-knit religious family in the South. They also played the same position: safety.

File that background information away, as we read on.

Later on, there is this interesting quote from Tra’ves Bush, who was disciplined for lying to investigators, then granted his own one-man graduation ceremony. Pay close attention:

Bush … thanked friends and relatives on Facebook, including his fiancee, a high school science teacher he began dating a few months after the off-campus party. They are getting married in July.

“I had countless nights without sleep, numerous random breakdowns, and there was even a few times when I wanted to throw in the towel and give it all up,” he wrote on Facebook. “I can go on and on about how things happened … but I’ll just sum it up by saying that any curse that the enemy is trying to make you believe you are, don’t accept it because it’s not who you are.”

And who, precisely, is the “enemy” in this quotation? The Post leaves this up to the interpretation of the reader, which I think is dangerous — since some might assume Bush is talking about his accuser. Given that one hint about his family background, I think he has another power in mind.

Later on, readers learn the following about the anonymous accuser. This section includes a reference to Joshua Tate, who was acquitted.

She remembers little of that night, she testified. She had downed shots of coconut-flavored rum before going to the football house to join more than 100 midshipmen and students from other schools. Her last clear memory of the night was dancing to the song “Cashin’ Out.” The next morning, she woke up on a couch inside the house, disheveled, with knots in her back and no memory of how she got that way. She later learned that she was rumored to have had sex with at least three men at the party: Bush, Graham and Tate.

She knew all three. She had occasionally hooked up with Bush for sex, she testified. She and Graham were in the same class and saw each other at Bible study once. When they were freshmen, he’d helped her shake off an unwanted suitor at a club by pretending to be her boyfriend. She had met Tate, who was a year behind her, through another football player, and sometimes they traded joking tweets.

And what about Tate’s complicated background?

A few weeks after his acquittal, Josh Tate returned to Bancroft Hall for the last time. He stuck out, dressed in a polo shirt and jeans. A civilian. … He’d been an outsider before, when he left his multiracial Nashville middle school for a mostly white Christian prep school. Many of his new classmates, he noticed right away, enjoyed advantages he didn’t have. …

Tate had originally heard about the academy from an older teammate who ended up there. The discipline and structure appealed to him. “It’s what I needed,” he said. He majored in the math-heavy general sciences, hoping eventually to be assigned to a ship or a submarine. But he found the demands on his time made it harder to do well academically. In the back of his mind, he said, “I questioned, ‘Is this really my calling in life?’”

Calling? That’s a secular word, yet also one laden with heavy religious implications, the kind one might learn in a Christian high school.

It’s hard to read this story as anything other than a tragedy for those involved. However, the question is whether this was, in any way, a morality play about, well, the state of “military values.” Thus, I found it interesting that no one appears to have asked these young adults any moral and religious questions, despite that common faith thread running through their lives.

Bible study? What Bible study? Who led it? Might it have been logical to have asked the military chaplains — who you know were involved in the fallout from this high-profile case — a few questions?

The bottom line: Was this really a tragedy with zero religious or moral implications? That does not seem to have been the case for the people, and their families, who were caught up in it. But for the editors at the Post?

IMAGE: U.S. Naval Academy photo.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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