Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault.

    (CNN) — The tension and anticipation were palpable as the three women, victims of sexual assault, gathered for the first time. But then, their anxiety gave way to a sense of relief and familiarity.

These women are survivors of unimaginable circumstances, seeking justice against the men they say raped them and destroyed their lives.

It was a hot September day. They came from across the country and embraced as they met in a conference room in CNN’s Washington bureau.

“I know your voice!” Harmony Allen said to “DK.” Previously, the women had only texted and spoken on the phone. “You changed your hair!” DK replied.

“This was not a group that I ever thought I was going to be a part of,” Allen said.

Harmony Allen and DK, whose identity CNN is not disclosing, recently learned that their rapists’ convictions had been thrown out. The decisions followed a ruling last year by the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the military’s top appeals court, in a separate alleged rape case called US v. Mangahas.

Contrary to the court’s longstanding precedent, the Mangahas ruling prohibited military prosecutors from bringing charges for rape that happened before 2006 unless the offense had been reported and charged within five years.

Jennifer Elmore never saw her day in court. The case in which she alleged her father, retired two-star Gen. James Grazioplene, raped her was dismissed on the same grounds two weeks before trial.

These women are familiar with the most intimate, vulnerable moments of each other’s lives. They’ve read each other’s cases and exchanged texts and phone calls and emails of support.

But they had never been face-to-face until that moment, when they came together for an interview with CNN anchor Brianna Keilar.

They shared their stories on camera ahead of the Supreme Court’s new term, when the high court will decide whether to take up a Justice Department request to overturn the military appeals court’s ruling applying a five-year statute of limitations.

Allen and DK are among five victims who have seen their rapists’ convictions vacated as a result. The military also dismissed or declined to prosecute at least 10 rape cases, according to the US Justice Department, including Elmore’s.

But this summer, in a rare and significant rebuke of the military’s top appeals court, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to take up both DK and Allen’s cases to reverse the military justice system’s “misunderstanding of the law.”

Solicitor General Noel Francisco, appointed by President Donald Trump, also argued that allowing the five-year rape reporting deadline to stand would “subvert the military’s concerted effort to eradicate sexual assault, erode confidence in the military-justice system, and fuel the impression that ‘nothing will happen to the perpetrator.”

The Air Force declined to comment on ongoing litigation. The Pentagon has yet to respond.

Sexual assault on the rise in the military

The women did not travel alone.

Eight people and two dogs piled into the conference room.

DK and her husband. Jennifer Elmore and her lawyer. An Air Force special victims’ counselor in fatigues. And Harmony Allen, who brought along a friend, a family member and two well-trained therapy dogs, “Darel” and “Gunny.”

After introductions, a nervous energy again settled over the room.

As she prepared to tell her story on camera for the first time, DK had been experiencing terrible flashbacks of her assault. As she sat down, her hands trembled. One of the dogs, Darel, laid down at her feet. She reached down and petted his ears softly. Allen held her hand.

Keilar asked the entire room — the majority of whom have served and come from military families — if they would want their daughters to join the military.

They shook their heads “no.”

In the Pentagon’s latest report on sexual assault from 2018, one out of 16 women in the military reported being sexually assaulted in the last year. Lower-ranking female service members, ages 17 to 24, were especially likely to be victims.

The Air Force special victims’ counselor said she represented 67 post-trial sexual assault victims, including Allen, DK and other women who have seen their rapists’ convictions overturned as a result of the Mangahas decision.

Their accounts of being assaulted are unique, but the hell that they endured and their search for justice has followed a similar path.

For each woman, it took several years, sometimes decades, to speak up. The military investigations and trials uniformly re-traumatized them all. Learning that time had run out to bring charges was panic-inducing.

“It has been a nightmare that hasn’t gone away,” Allen said.

“When I say utterly devastating,” said Elmore, “I wondered how I was going to go home and put the mommy pieces together, to show up for children who need me to show up for them.”

DK described herself “crying, sobbing, shaking — like borderline hysteria,” after getting a call from a military legal office saying that her rapist had won his appeal.

“It was going back to that night… Everything that I’d been through, that my family had been through. It felt like it was for nothing,” DK said. “Like, why did I come forward in the first place if this is what’s going to happen?”

Why did it take so many years for these women to report their rapes? It’s a common question in many reported sexual assaults. Defense attorneys often use a victim’s delay in coming forward to question the veracity of the alleged victim’s claims.

But waiting to report a rape or sexual assault is exceedingly common. In the military, the high likelihood that a victim will be ostracized or punished socially or professionally within their unit after making a report decreases the chances they will come forward.

Years ago, before sexual assault in the military had been scrutinized by Congress and the media, this was even more true.

‘You try to keep it inside as best as you can’

Not one of the women interviewed by CNN thought they’d be believed.

Allen was raped by her Air Force instructor, Master Sgt. Richard Collins, in August 2000.

Collins appeared to be intoxicated at a club on base where Air Force instructors and students gathered. Allen, who does not drink, offered to drive him home.

Moments after Allen helped Collins through his front door and into the foyer, he pinned her against a wall and pressed his forearm into her chest.

Allen says she fought back.

“I hit him in the face, he became enraged and he punched me in my face,” she told Keilar. “He knocked me out. When I woke up, he was inside of me.”

“When he finished… He stood up and he looked over me as if I was a piece of garbage and said if I ever say anything that he would kill me and that nobody would believe me anyways because I was an airman and he was Sergeant and outranked me,” she recounted.

Allen says she refused to name Collins for years because she was afraid.

“I truly believe that he would have killed me.”

She was only 19 years old at the time. She had enlisted in the Air Force just three months earlier.

“Things have gotten different now in the military,” Allen said, “but in 2000 when I was raped, you’re stuck in the military. You’re stuck with the person who just raped you, who’s saying that they’ll kill you, who’s saying that they’re going to mess up your military career. You hide it. You try to keep it inside as best as you can.”

Photos taken of Allen three days after the rape show she was brutally beaten; she had a black eye and her arms were covered in bruises. A female instructor noticed her injuries and took her to the hospital. The police were summoned, and an examination and rape kit were performed.

“It was not female police who were sent, so I’m going through this kit and the police are taking pictures of my most personal areas. Rulers are being shoved there. I keep trying to close my legs as tight as I could, and they just keep pulling my legs apart,” she says.

“In the end, to me it felt like being raped twice.”

Allen refused to name the man who attacked her, after that exam.

She did not begin naming Collins to the Air Force until 2011 and not in an official report until 2014, when Allen left the military and sought VA benefits for PTSD related to her attack.

That report in 2014 launched the investigation that led to his trial.

“No matter how many years you try to tell yourself, ‘I’m okay, I’m not affected by it. I can still live.’ You can’t. Eventually it came out,” she said.

Master Sgt. Richard D. Collins was tried for the rape of Harmony Allen before a military court on Eglin Air Force Base in Florida in late February 2017.

Collins pleaded not guilty and testified that Allen had never even been inside his house.

But she drew the configuration of Collins’ living room and a family portrait of Collins, his wife and their two children, which she stared at while she was assaulted.

A jury found Collins guilty of rape and sentenced him to 16 ½ years in prison. He was let out by the Mangahas appeals decision after serving just two. His conviction of rape was set aside, and his sentence was overturned.

Collins declined to comment through his lawyer.

‘I didn’t think anybody would believe me’

DK was in the Air Force in May 2005 when Lt. Col. Michael Briggs raped her.

It took time for her to reconcile how a colleague she said she knew and liked had so brutally raped her, leaving her passed out in her own blood, with tearing so severe she was unable to sit for days.

“This was a man that I had worked with, that I respected, that I admired, I looked up to. He was a mentor in some ways,” DK told CNN.

“He was so well liked in the squad, and then I didn’t think anybody would believe me when I was just a young airman over somebody that was a captain and a training instructor.”

Briggs began sending her emails shortly after the assault.

At that time, DK confided in a supervisor and the supervisor’s husband. The husband asked Briggs to leave her alone, and he heeded that warning. To DK’s knowledge, a report did not go up the chain of command.

“Basically, I was told to figure out a way to work with him,” DK said.

“Now, it hurts. Back then, it’s just how it was. I didn’t expect anybody to ever go and tell my story for me… I don’t know if it was that they didn’t know what to do, the right channels to go through…”

DK moved away from base within a year of the assault, she said, and tried to leave it all behind her.

But she struggled to, and in 2013, after the Air Force launched and promoted a program to give sexual assault victims dedicated advocates and legal representation, DK officially reported the rape eight years after it happened.

Days later, as Air Force investigators recorded, DK called Briggs on the phone.

DK provided CNN with a copy of the recording.

Briggs: Lieutenant Colonel Briggs.

DK: Hi, this is Sergeant ____. Actually, you probably remember me as Airman ____ from when we were stationed at Luke together.

Briggs: Yes.

Briggs talks for nearly 12 minutes of the 15-minute conversation.

Throughout the call, which was transcribed into court records, he says “sorry” at least six times.

“I am so, so sorry for being selfish, for disrespecting you, for not listening to you, for not being your — not just your friend, but not being professional and being a human being when you needed it.”

“I’m so sorry for pushing myself on you; for putting my selfish, distorted needs and subjecting you to that; for not respecting you as a person and listening to you and stopping.”

“I am sorry. I have been sorry. I will always be sorry for raping you.”

Moments after the call ended, according to evidence submitted in court, he logged onto his government-issued computer and searched the statute of limitations for rape by state, “common steps in healing from rape,” “If She is Raped — Long-Term Consequences” and “Grieving Stages a Rape Victim Goes Through.”

Briggs was tried by a military judge in August 2014 on Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, where he was stationed at the time. He pleaded not guilty.

Briggs was found guilty and sentenced to five months confinement.

His conviction was set aside in March of this year, and the case was dismissed.

His appeals lawyer Steve Vladeck referred CNN to an earlier statement:

“Lt. Col. Briggs has consistently maintained his innocence in this case,” Vladeck said in August. “But the question the government is asking the Supreme Court to decide is not what actually happened between him and DK, but the more technical legal question whether the military has the power to court-martial servicemembers for offenses that allegedly took place well over a decade ago, and in which, according to the highest court in the military, the statute of limitations had already expired.”

(Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, is a CNN contributor.)

‘It’s seared in my brain at 3’

Jennifer Elmore has accused her father, retired two-star Gen. James Grazioplene, of molesting and raping her throughout her childhood, until she left home for college.

“The countless times my father harmed me, I would think, ‘I’m going to stay silent.’ Because if I spoke, and if I said, ‘This is what’s happening,’ they’re not going to believe me. Worse yet, if they do believe me, they’re not going to do anything,” Elmore said.

Her first memory of abuse is in a laundry room at 3 years old.

“He put me on a washing machine, and took my underwear down, and he masturbated himself, touching me… I knew I was terrified, and this was very bad, and I was not to speak of what was occurring,” she said. “It’s seared in my brain at 3.”

Over the next 15 years, Elmore said the abuse escalated to “countless scenes” of rape and sexual violence.

The Washington Post was the first to report her story.

In 2015, more than 20 years after Elmore left home, she reported the alleged crimes to the Army.

Being believed by the military, Elmore said, was like “little pieces of a broken soul being put back together. Something that was ripped and shredded was given back.”

But the investigation process and preparing for trial took its toll on her.

“Anybody who thinks coming forward is a blast, or it’s just something to say happened to you, is off-base. It is costly. It is re-victimizing,” she said. “The victims have their lives torn apart, every detail.”

After a two-year investigation, the Army court-martialed the general. Grazioplene pleaded not guilty to six specifications of rape.

The Army’s evidence included letters from her mother, which CNN obtained from Elmore’s lawyer.

In 1986, Ann Marie Grazioplene wrote to a family member about her husband’s behavior.

“All the while I was playing housewife,” Ann Marie Grazioplene wrote, “he was taking perverted liberties with my child.”

In another, she wrote, “Jim has… made an attempt at sexually molesting Jennifer. She was sleeping, thank God, and I caught him before he got started.”

Ann Marie Grazioplene later denied the extent to which she knew of the abuse, in a 1994 letter addressed to her daughter.

“I had no knowledge of any abuse, of the nature that you endured,” she wrote. “I hated and still do hate what Dad did to to [sic] you.”

In a phone call with CNN, Ann Marie Grazioplene acknowledged that the letters were hers. But she said that her words were “distorted,” without expanding further.

The Grazioplenes are still married today.

Two weeks before the trial was set to begin, Elmore was in a court room, prosecutors walking her through what would happen during the trial.

It was February 6, 2018, the same day that the top military appeals court came down with its statute of limitations decision.

Elmore’s lawyer left the room and took a phone call. When he returned, he knelt beside her.

“He just looked me straight in the eyes, and he said, ‘It’s over. It’s over.'”

She had reported her father’s alleged sexual abuse far outside the five-year requirement for rapes occurring before 2006.

Grazioplene’s case was dismissed.

“The betrayal and the abandonment, in that moment, by the highest military court in this land, I’m not sure which was worse and more painful to experience, what my father did or how I felt walking out of that conference room that day,” she said.

Because Elmore’s case was not tried, another option was available to her — one outside of the military. She is now pursuing charges in Virginia, where there is no statute of limitations for rape.

Limited in scope to crimes that occurred within the commonwealth, a grand jury in Prince William County indicted Grazioplene on three specifications each of rape, incest and indecent liberties following a four-month investigation.

He has yet to enter a plea in this trial.

One of Grazioplene’s lawyers, Tom Pavlinic, said in a phone call and email that their defense team did not comment on ongoing cases.

The trial is set to begin in late January or early February.

“I’m incredibly grateful that I have another chance, that others have not gotten, who are struggling with essentially being told, ‘You are not worth (it),’ which is what a victim hears and knows,” Elmore said.

(Copyright (c) 2024 CNN. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

Join our Newsletter for the latest news right to your inbox