Claims of 'lewd' acts probed by academy

The Baltimore Sun

The Naval Academy is investigating allegations that uniformed midshipmen on a spring break cruise in the Caribbean drunkenly groped women and offered alcohol to teenagers.

In an e-mailed complaint that prompted the investigation, a female passenger on the Carnival ship Glory two weeks ago, said the group of eight to 10 male midshipmen also displayed "lewd" behavior in bikini swim trunks and cowboy boots and hats - earning them the nickname "the Speedo Boys."

"I was 'felt up' by one of the very drunk men and I was given the misfortune of watching them grab and disrespect every woman they could get close to as well as seeing them offer the underage (15 and 17 year old) girls at our table alcohol," she wrote. "I cannot tell you strongly enough how EMBARRASSED these "gentlemen" made me feel to be an American. I can only imagine what the foreigners on our ship and in port thought of us."

At least two other passengers referred to unruly Mids on the ship in online postings, but a third, contacted by The Sun, disputed the allegations and called the young men "very respectful."

The allegations come amid a crackdown on drinking and sexual misconduct at the academy after several high-profile sexual assault trials - the latest of which will begin next week in Washington.

Senior academy officials forwarded the e-mail to dozens of officers at the Annapolis military college, who read it aloud to midshipmen, asking anyone with information to come forward.

School officials acknowledged yesterday that they have been unable to identify who may have been involved, and any investigation will face jurisdictional challenges since the alleged incidents took place at sea.

In the six days since the woman sent the e-mail, no one from the academy has contacted her, she said in an interview. The Sun does not identify women who allege they were sexually harassed.

"I understand that they're twentysomething spring breakers," said the woman, who lives in Arizona. "But I come from Pat Tillman country, where a lot of people give up their lives to serve this country. I just want it to be looked at and they should be spoken to. They should be reminded that they represent all of us when they're in that uniform."

J. Bonnie Newman, chairwoman of the academy's Board of Visitors, a civilian oversight panel, called the allegations "troublesome."

"At this stage, we simply need more facts," said Newman, interim president of the University of New Hampshire. "But to know that any young men would behave in the manner described, be they midshipmen or not, is very disturbing."

Newman praised the efforts of Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy superintendent, saying he "has shown such extraordinary leadership when it comes to discouraging alcohol abuse and inappropriate behavior.

"But if these allegations were proven to be true, it would be very disappointing."

Rempt, whose four-year tenure at the academy has been shaped by his handling of sexual impropriety, has launched several initiatives to curb excessive drinking among the 4,300 students. Starting next fall, all Mids will be required to take coursework every year on dating, sexual consent, defining rape and violence prevention. Last fall, the academy announced a landmark "zero-tolerance" strategy to curtail drinking, increasing the number of random sobriety tests and threatening expulsion for offenders.

The woman who complained to the academy, however, described something like Mids Gone Wild. She said that during the March 10-17 cruise through the Caribbean and to Cozumel, Mexico, and Belize, the midshipmen were "drinking as much as humanly possible."

During a formal dinner, she wrote, the young men in dress white uniforms offered to buy drinks for the teenage daughters of a family whom she and her husband befriended on the cruise.

The woman said another young man in dress whites, who identified himself as a midshipman, took a flower she was holding in her hand, put it in his mouth and grabbed her buttocks, mimicking a tango.

He then said to her husband over her shoulder: "I'd keep an eye on her if I were you, or we'll run off with her."

Her husband didn't hear, and she didn't report it to cruise security personnel.

"I'd have slapped him or said something, but I was afraid my husband would react and get involved," she said.

She and her husband said they saw midshipmen groping other female passengers as well.

"Kids will be kids, and during spring break, they do crazy stuff," he said. "People are allowed to be foolish, but not in uniform."

Several passengers who wrote about the trip on cruisecritics .com also described Naval Academy students drinking and groping women.

"There was a group of boys from the Naval academy ... let's just say that if there was a commanding officer with them, they would be discharged," wrote someone calling himself "phlydude." "We gave them the nickname of puss n boots. One of them like to walk around in a speedo with cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. They were being very loose with their hands when talking with the ladies as well."

Another passenger, who described herself as a 23-year-old graduate student, wrote, "They were the bane of my existence all week. Especially the one with the shaved head. OBNOXIOUS. We actually video-taped him in the Speedo on the Lido for posterity." Attempts to reach both writers yesterday were unsuccessful.

Nate Brady of Lawrence, Kan., who wrote about the cruise on his blog, said in an interview that one young man with the group of midshipmen attempted to pull down the shirt of their female friend, but was quickly reprimanded by other Naval Academy students, who also apologized on his behalf. The young man told them that he had been expelled from the academy.

As for the other midshipmen in the group, Nate and his wife, Tobey Brady, said they were courteous to women and did not drink to excess, even giving up their seats to stranded travelers after a cave-tubing expedition.

"People thought they were very respectful," Brady said. "We saw those guys on a lot of occasions, and we didn't see anything inappropriate."

A spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines said yesterday that she was unaware of any allegations of impropriety and could not immediately comment, explaining that the allegations would take "some time" to research.

What complicates matters is that the alleged incidents took place at sea, where law enforcement officials have no power to investigate crimes or make arrests. Congress has sought to rein in cruise ships after a series of disappearances and rapes called public attention to the problem. Last year, a bill requiring cruise ships to report crimes against U.S. citizens stalled in a House committee.

Midshipmen and officers have discussed the allegations in formal and informal gatherings, including in class last week, according to one source familiar with those discussions.

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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