“In the exposing of these individual stories, we give weight to their powerful voices and egregious experiences," Norah O'Donnell tells PEOPLE

By Deirdre Durkan
October 03, 2018 10:37 PM
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Almost a year after a six-month investigation into sexual assault cases at the U.S. Air Force Academy, CBS This Morning host Norah O’Donnell won an Emmy for outstanding investigative report in a newscast on Monday.

“Sexual abuse and harassment is systematic and pervasive. It is across our culture and our workplaces,” O’Donnell tells PEOPLE exclusively. “In the exposing of these individual stories, we give weight to their powerful voices and egregious experiences.”

O’Donnell, who worked with producer Jennifer Janisch, shared four cadets’ accounts of being sexually assaulted and the retaliation they faced for reporting them on CBS This Morning last December.

Despite 287 sexual assault reports to the U.S. Air Force Academy over the past 10 years, the longtime anchor noted that women serving in the military still endure assault, abuse and harassment.

“It was like they experienced two assaults. First being the actual sexual assault and then lack of support, lack of belief and the further harassment that resulted,” explains O’Donnell, whose father served in the military for 30 years and sister is a surgeon for the Army.

As the investigation unfolded, O’Donnell felt pride in exposing the abuse.

“They reported the assault. They sought medical help. There is a record. There is a name attached to it with a fellow cadet at the Air Force Academy and these women are not believed,” she says. “Still to this day it is hard to accept.”

While O’Donnell and producers were initially unsure if any current cadets would be willing to speak up, two women from the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs came forward.

“We put them in silhouettes,” says O’Donnell. “These were current cadets, who not only were risking their scholarships, but their careers.”

When O’Donnell asked one of the women, who chose to remain anonymous, if she regretted reporting her assault, the cadet broke down.

“I regret it every day because of everything that came after. I just wish that I never came forward,” she said through tears on CBS This Morning. “I never asked to be assaulted.”

While the interviews were emotional for the victims, O’Donnell and her team also struggled hearing about the “soul-crushing abuse and harassment.”

“We at one point had to stop the interview because my producers, who were about 10 feet away, were crying so hard I could hear them in my microphone. The cameramen were sobbing. It was like nothing I had ever experienced in my life,” she remembered.

O’Donnell pointed out that the experience opened her eyes about the allegations made against her former co-host, Charlie Rose: “I just thought about how soul-crushing abuse and harassment is. You have to understand that in order to fix that problem, there has to be zero tolerance. It is soul-crushing for women and you live with it for your entire life.”