By Jackson Sharman
A former male cadet at the Virginia Military Institute has filed a federal lawsuit claiming that he was the victim of sexual assault and waterboarding.
The lawsuit, filed last week in federal district court in Roanoke, accuses five upperclassmen of engaging in behavior that was “tantamount to torture.” It also names J.H. Binford Peay III, the superintendent, and William J. Wanovich, the commandant of cadets.
VMI is known for its adversarial training model, the heart of which is the “rat” experience for first-year cadets. The “rats” endure seven months of bootcamp-like initiation rites at the hands of older cadets, who are part of the cadet-cadre, which is overseen by the superintendent and commandant.
The lawsuit says male cadets are treated differently than female cadets because VMI has instituted several policies to protect women since they were admitted in 1997 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the military academy’s male-only admissions policy was unconstitutional.
“VMI responds aggressively to allegations of hazing involving female cadets but shows deliberate indifference to allegations of hazing involving male cadets, because of long-held and outdated gender stereotypes about young men,” the lawsuit says. “Because of those stereotypes … VMI minimizes the hazing of male cadets as ‘boys being boys’ engaging in traditional and customary masculine rites of passage.”
Col. Stewart MacInnis, a spokesman for VMI, said the school does not believe it violated anyone’s rights. “VMI doesn’t tolerate hazing. We have very robust policies regarding hazing and sexual misconduct,” he said. “We’re going to defend the institution vigorously in court.”
The lawsuit focuses on an incident that occurred in January 2018 when the plaintiff—identified in court filings as John Doe to protect his identity—was in his first year.
According to the lawsuit, Doe went on a “rat mission” to help another first-year cadet retrieve his mattress that had been taken by older cadets. When the two first-year cadets tried to get it back, they were attacked, the lawsuit says. Their feet were allegedly bound with duct tape so they could not escape.
The lawsuit says the upperclassmen told the younger cadets that they were prisoners. The older cadets also played the Islamic call to prayer.
Both first-year cadets were then allegedly subjected to waterboarding. The lawsuit said towels were placed over their faces and water was poured on them as the young men struggled for air.
The lawsuit says the upperclassmen were mimicking the controversial interrogation tactic used by U.S. military in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Waterboarding is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
The older cadets then ordered the two younger men to “get in their cave” by entering a crawl space under a desk, according to the lawsuit. One of the older cadets allegedly “doused” the younger men with Febreze, an air freshener.
The lawsuit says the older cadets then ordered the two younger men to engage in a “naked wrestling match.” One young man was ordered to take off his shirt. Doe was ordered to remove his pants. But Doe protested, saying he wasn’t wearing underwear.
The older cadets then told the younger men to take off their shirts, the lawsuit says. The young men wrestled until they got too loud and were told to stop.
The older cadets who were named in the lawsuit are Brayden Carver, Carter T. McCausland, Jordan M. Bennett, Ryan A. Hoops and Tyler E. Hamilton.
The lawsuit says Doe reported the incident to an upperclassman later that day.
The complaint went up the chain of command up to Lt. Col. Kevin Faust, the assistant Title IX coordinator, according to the lawsuit. Title IX is the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.
But Faust waited two days before notifying the VMI police, the lawsuit says.
Officer L.E. Hunt launched an investigation, interviewing Carver and McCausland, who had taken photos of the incident on their phones, according to the lawsuit.
“Incredibly, Officer Hunt directed the two defendants to delete the photos (presumably to protect VMI), thereby destroying evidence that could be used in any subsequent criminal action and denying John Doe access to evidence that could be crucial to this action,” the lawsuit says. “Officer Hunt’s direction to delete evidence of a potential crime, evidence that could embarrass VMI, violates VMI policy and demonstrates that VMI acted with deliberate indifference.”