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Thursday, June 20, 2013

An Open Letter to West Point Leadership from One of the Its First Woman Graduates


[I've been asked by several people if I could post yesterday's open letter (as a stand-alone piece) to West Point written by one of its first woman graduates, Brenda "Sue" Fulton, Class of 1980. She was appointed by President Obama to the West Point Board of Visitors, last year. In that role, Fulton delivered this to several Members of Congress in Washington, D.C., yesterday.]

An Open Letter to the Leadership of the United States Military Academy at West Point

It was hard to attend graduation this year. I knew that almost a dozen rugby players would be walking across the stage – rugby players who had participated in pornographic, misogynistic, sometimes racist weekly emails, targeting their own fellow cadets. Emails that included language like “the only thing <woman cadet’s name> can call out is her own name as she f--ks <her boyfriend> in the a-- with an 8" black strap-on” and “<woman cadet’s name> needs to be raped by like twenty big black dudes.” Emails that included photos taken of women cadets without their knowledge, captioned with sexually suggestive and/or violent comments. 

You could tell when the rugby players accepted their diplomas, because their sleeves were bare of rank – part of that “maximum punishment” West Point claimed they received: loss of cadet rank, 120 hours on the area (60 suspended), and 8 hours of “intensive Respect training.” I suppose I should be grateful that the underclass rugby players will be given the full six months of Respect mentorship, though they received fewer hours on the area. “Maximum” indeed.

So I watched these new 2nd Lieutenants, walking across the same stage as one of the women they tormented. I was assured that they had a rough week. Well, so did that woman, who spent the last few months before her graduation being relentlessly harassed for turning over one of the emails to West Point leadership. I wondered what it would be like to be a woman soldier in a platoon led by one of those creeps.

I understand the punishment was solely the decision of the new Commandant, an officer who has managed to serve for 29 years and yet commanded women for a grand total of maybe ten months. 

He’s not the first general to be placed in a command for which he wasn’t qualified, but one would hope he would have gotten better advice. Instead – fully backed by the Superintendent – he was impressed by the fact that the men stood together, taking their punishment as a team, and decided that they would make fine officers, thank you very much.

That idea of “standing together as a team” is less impressive when you realize that it’s about a group of men standing together over their rejection of women as part of their team, as classmates, as equals. That was the message sent to the Corps, as replayed to me by a couple of male cadets: what matters is that the men closed ranks – and they “got over.”

I also heard how “remorseful” the boys were. Yes, so “remorseful” that, after graduation, one of them sent a photo of his friend “flipping the bird” to the woman who turned over the email.

A year ago, I attended a Sexual Assault Prevention workshop for the second class, in Thayer Hall’s South Auditorium. Prompted to come up with a typical “pick-up line,” one of the cows stood up and made a rape joke. The “trainers” joined the rest of the class in laughing, and made no comment about the appropriateness of his comment.

This fall, cadets will come back from summer training to a West Point leadership leaflet on their desks that tells them, “You are joining a brotherhood.” A brotherhood. Seriously??

I am deeply troubled. I have seen no evidence that West Point’s senior leadership has a clue about the current command climate and its utter contempt for women. Meanwhile, I have seen plenty of evidence that women cadets and officers remain second-class citizens at the Academy. 

I love the Army, and I love West Point. I believe in the values that are supposed to define the Academy, and I know dozens of officers at West Point who share those values, and hundreds of graduates  - male and female – who have upheld those values, on the battlefield and beyond. And because I love West Point, because I live these values, I am speaking out. Our cadets and officers deserve better leadership. 

Please give me some reassurance that the motto of West Point is still “Duty, Honor, Country,” and not – as it appears to be – “Bros before Hos.”


Brenda Sue Fulton
West Point Class of 1980
Member, US Military Academy Board of Visitors

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