Defense witnesses take stand as Camden Military Academy enters fourth week

jmonk@thestate.comJuly 1, 2013 

Camden Military Academy coat of arms

CAMDEN MILITARY ACADEMY

An administrative supervisor at Camden Military Academy on Monday denied hitting a former cadet who is suing the school, alleging he was raped as a 13-year-old by another cadet.

“No, sir, I did not,” testified Vertis Wilder, a decorated combat veteran who spent 30 years in the Army, attaining its top enlisted rank before leaving the service and getting a job at Camden Military Academy.

Wilder’s denial, uttered in a firm voice under questioning by defense attorney Duke Highfield, came as the federal civil jury trial at the federal courthouse in Columbia entered its fourth week.

The plaintiff, now 18, is suing the military academy, saying he suffers psychologically from the alleged 2008 rape. The ex-cadet alleges he also suffered repeated bullying by other students — behavior that his lawsuit claims the school should have known about and stopped.

The allegation that Wilder jabbed the cadet and then ejected him from a room is a key point to the plaintiff’s lawsuit, which claims the alleged incident illustrates how the cadet’s repeated pleas to be protected from bullying were ignored.

Later Monday, Lt. Col. Pat Armstrong, a career Army officer who joined Camden Military Academy after leaving the Army, testified that the school goes to great lengths to ensure a safe and mentoring environment for students.

Armstrong, who has been the school’s commandant of cadets for 14 years, testified for more than an hour about how the school’s chain of command operates, with experienced ex-military men overseeing the cadet student body. Older cadets and staff help new cadets adjust to the military environment and help them to “be at the right place at the right time in the right uniform,” he testified.

Each school year, at the end of the first week, Armstrong testified, he speaks to new cadets, telling them about school rules, warning them “if they put their hands on somebody, they’re going to be held accountable.”

Students, who are encouraged to report wrongdoing, swear an oath they will “act in an honorable manner,” testified Armstrong, a West Point graduate.

Bullying exists at Camden Military Academy, but the administration makes serious efforts to deal with it, Armstrong testified.

Bullying is hard to define but can involve multiple incidents of “any kind of behavior that would cause harm to another. ... It is often associated with some kind of power imbalance,” he testified. “I think everybody knows instinctively what bullying is.”

Like Wilder, Armstrong is a named defendant in the lawsuit. The State does not generally identify alleged sex-assault victims.

With the July 4 holiday this Thursday, it is possible the trial could go into next week. Neither Judge Joe Anderson nor defense lawyers have announced plans.

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