Base Boston: Rape and Sexual Assault in the Coast Guard

It’s the headquarters for the Coast Guard’s entire First District. It’s where many victims of sexual assault in the service get sent. And it’s where, all too often, their military careers then come to an end.

In March of last year, Yale’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic reported on the military’s widespread use of these diagnoses, which are often given to rape victims and war-scarred soldiers, and argued that the resulting discharges were illegal. Citing a 2008 study by the Government Accountability Office, the report concluded that “hundreds, if not thousands” of illegal personality-disorder discharges had occurred since 2001, many resulting in victims being denied disability pay and other veterans’ benefits. After the GAO study was published, the number of personality-disorder discharges began to decrease throughout the military—except in the Coast Guard, where the number of such discharges rose from 38 in 2008 to 155 in 2010, according to the study. One survey of 1,200 service members found that 90 percent of those who reported sexual assaults were involuntarily discharged.

In Panayiota Bertzikis’s case, her discharge report described her ordeal this way: “While at Station Burlington, she had an inappropriate relationship with another member which ended in accusations of rape.” Bertzikis’s personality, the report concluded, “does not appear to be compatible with being able to fully accommodate to the stresses and frustrations of ordinary service life.”

Bertzikis sums it up more bluntly: “I was told I was having problems adjusting to being raped.”

Since leaving the Coast Guard, in 2007, Bertzikis has expanded the MySpace page she created in her Boston barracks into the Military Rape Crisis Center, perhaps the country’s largest organization for military rape survivors. Now 31, Bertzikis is a full-time crusader for victims. She and her team of volunteers hold training sessions on military bases and lead monthly support groups in Boston and Springfield, as well as in New London, Connecticut, and Phoenix, Arizona. She says she has worked with thousands of survivors.

Bertzikis has also collaborated with members of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, and Congress to draft new policies for dealing with sexual assault in the military. And she has been a fierce voice in ensuring that the same protections and oversight in the other branches apply to the Coast Guard. “What she has done just amazes me. I’m so proud of her,” Nethercot says.

Her influence is evident: When I first called the Coast Guard to arrange for an interview, the communications officer immediately knew who I was talking about when I mentioned that I’d spoken to victim advocates. “That would be Ms. Bertzikis,” the officer said.

 

The sheer remoteness of many Coast Guard bases makes its members vulnerable to harassment and assault. And when they’re not at their stations, Coasties can be out on the water for weeks or months at a time—an eternity if you’re onboard a vessel with a rapist. This physical isolation often makes it difficult for victims to access medical services and begin the process of opening an investigation against their attacker. In short, it allows problems to fester.

“There isn’t the large network and support system that’s established at other military bases,” says Nancy Parrish, the president of the human-rights organization Protect Our Defenders. “There’s nowhere to turn when you’re assaulted.”

While victims on some Coast Guard bases have access to volunteer advocates trained to help them report assaults, often they must call off-site Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARCs) who might be hundreds of miles away. Parrish and others argue that there are not enough coordinators to ensure that all complaints get a prompt response. For example, there are three SARCs handling complaints for all of the First District—a region that encompasses 55 ashore units, 33 afloat units, and seven cutters.

Advocates from the Military Rape Crisis Center, the Service Women’s Action Network, Protect Our Defenders, and the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center all say they have fielded calls from victims throughout the Northeast who have been unable to reach their SARC in Boston after an assault, and that follow-up calls to the SARC from the crisis centers often go unreturned. Particularly disturbing to everyone I spoke with was the fact that the SARC position at Base Boston went unfilled for six months last year. (“It’s not uncommon for a position to be vacant for a period of time, due to the hiring process and screening,” says Rear Admiral Daniel Neptun, the Guard’s assistant commandant for human resources and the commander of the First District from 2010 to 2012.)

Those who wish to press charges have found themselves faced with what they say is the daunting task of working with the Coast Guard Investigative Service. Reservist Emily Mears was raped in 2003 while attending a training program in Petaluma, California, and began the process of reporting her rape at Base Boston five years later, after learning that her assailant had been assigned a post near her own. She says that over the course of several months, an investigator with the Coast Guard Investigative Service repeatedly questioned her. “Every time I met up with him it was like victim-blaming,” she says. “It was then that I started realizing he wasn’t working for me—he was working for the Coast Guard.”

When Mears’s case finally went before a military court, she had met her assigned lawyer just once before. When she took the stand, she recalls, “They asked me, ‘Oh, Emily, please tell us: How do you know the difference between a penis and other things that go inside of your vagina?’ I had to say this in front of my father, in front of two captains. It was absolutely terrible.”

Ultimately, the judge dismissed the case. “While I do not doubt the credibility of HS3 Mears, and I believe that a sexual assault did, in fact, occur,” he wrote, “I do not believe the ancillary evidence would lead to a conviction at a trial by court-martial.”

“That’s when I washed my hands of the whole thing,” Mears says.

 


Janelle Nanos
Janelle Nanos Janelle Nanos, Contributor jnanos@bostonmagazine.com