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.

US Coast Guard Base Boston

Photograph by Bob O’Connor

In August 2006, an E-3 seaman named Panayiota Bertzikis, searching for a stronger WiFi connection, dragged a chair up against the window in her barracks at the Coast Guard’s Base Boston. Tucked away at the northernmost tip of the North End, the base is a cluster of old buildings built on three piers that stretch into the harbor like a trident. It’s a site steeped in American maritime history—the hull of the U.S.S. Constitution was built in a shipyard that once stood there, using copper nails forged by Paul Revere.

Dormant for years, the station was recommissioned in 2003 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, becoming the headquarters for the Coast Guard’s First District—2,000 miles of Atlantic shoreline stretching from northern New Jersey to Canada. But in the decade since then, the base has taken on another purpose: This is where the Coast Guard processes many of its enlisted men and women after they have been raped. Here, they receive medical treatment for any physical injuries and are often given a psychological evaluation. It is not uncommon in the Coast Guard for that evaluation to find that victims are suffering from adjustment or personality disorders, diagnoses that can lead to their being found unfit to serve and given discharge papers. Boston, in other words, is where many rape victims’ Coast Guard careers end.

Looking out onto the harbor—the water she loved and had sworn to protect—Seaman Bertzikis opened her laptop and logged into her MySpace page. On her desk sat a photo of her high school girlfriends from back home in New York. She often went online to keep up with them, though she never told them the reason she’d been stationed in Boston.

Today, though, her stomach was churning: Boston, she had realized, might be her final posting. She opened a new, anonymous MySpace page, and typed in the headline “Military Rape Survivor.”


After decades of being all but ignored, the issue of sexual violence in the military has been the focus of a firestorm of attention in recent months. The Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War has done its part to give a face and a voice to the crisis, while Congress is working to address the issue with fervor, implementing several new laws to protect members of the armed forces, and holding a flurry of hearings in the past few months to discuss further legislation. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has called sexual assault within the ranks “unacceptable,” and President Barack Obama has said that the perpetrators of violence are “betraying the uniform.” Meanwhile, the number of reported sexual assaults jumped 34.5 percent in the past year, to 26,300.

But even as pressure has mounted for other branches of the military to address the problem, the Coast Guard has remained largely overlooked. In fact, because the Coast Guard operates as part of the Department of Homeland Security rather than the Department of Defense, the new Congressional legislation that governs military personnel does not apply to the Guard. Its service members are not granted the same legal protections as other members of the military, and victims do not have the same access to legal counsel that is provided in the other branches. “The Coast Guard is about 10 years behind the other services in terms of dealing with this issue,” says Greg Jacob, a former Marine who now serves as the policy director of the Service Women’s Action Network.

As the smallest branch of the military, with 42,000 active officers, the Coast Guard is only slightly larger than the New York City Police Department. But its tasks are diverse and daunting. It provided critical aid after Hurricane Sandy, for instance, and last year it intercepted 107 metric tons of cocaine headed for the U.S. The Coast Guard’s fleets patrol harbors and direct port traffic, enforce fishing regulations, inspect recreational vessels, and investigate environmental incidents. The Guard also maintains lighthouses and navigational equipment, just as it has for generations. All told, in its 223 years in operation, the Guard has reportedly saved more than 1.1 million lives.

Women have had a place in the Coast Guard since 1942. First recruited as reservists, or SPARs (the Guard’s slogan is Semper Paratus, or Always Ready), women were encouraged to enlist so men could fight the war abroad. “You won’t get to be an admiral,” one WWII recruitment reel made clear, “but you may get to be his secretary.” After the war, the active-duty Coast Guard went back to being all male until 1973, when Congressional legislation allowed women to enlist again.

Women today make up about 15 percent of the Coast Guard’s active-duty service, slightly above the average of the other military branches. “The Coast Guard has been a leader in equal rights for women and everyone who serves,” says retired Captain Martha LaGuardia-Kotite, the author of Changing the Rules of Engagement: Inspiring Stories of Courage and Leadership from Women in the Military. Kotite points out that Vice Admiral Vivien Crea, who retired from the Guard in 2009, is still the highest-ranking woman in military history.

Despite its record of progressive policies, however, the Coast Guard has been mired in accusations of sexism, harassment, and assault for decades. The Coast Guard reported 141 incidents of sexual assault in 2012, up from 83 in 2011 and 75 in 2010. But as the Department of Defense has acknowledged, the number of sexual assaults reported within the military is a small fraction of the number that are actually taking place. For instance, of the 26,300 incidents of sexual assault in the military last year, just 3,374 were reported to authorities, a 27 percent drop from the year before. The rest weren’t revealed until military members were surveyed anonymously (62 percent of victims said they experienced “professional, social or administrative retaliation” from within their command). Meanwhile, perpetrators are rarely convicted. The number of convictions increased slightly last year—to 238—but the conviction rate went down, to 0.9 percent, because of the increase in the number of incidents.

The Coast Guard’s annual assault statistics are not included in reports released by the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), and the Guard does not participate in the annual anonymous surveys of active-duty service members. But students at the Coast Guard Academy, in New London, Connecticut, are given the same surveys as students at each of the other U.S. military academies, and the number of female respondents who reported unwanted sexual contact there jumped from 5.6 percent in 2008 to 9.8 percent in 2012. Of those respondents, 39 percent said their attacks ended in “completed sex,” an artful euphemism for the word rape.

  • Diana Danis

    Until reporting, investigation, adjudication and sentencing of these felony crimes are removed from the Chain of Command, there will be no real justice for our military personnel.

  • Shawn

    This behavior is totally unacceptable and deserves the exposure it has been given, but we are naive and myopic if we don’t start discussing this as the larger social issue it is. If we don’t think this is being experienced in all facets of life, whether corporate America, halls of academia, or right around the corner from us, we are turning a blind eye to the issue and most importantly the victims.

    This issue is not a military issue… I am sure if the author looked into the prosecution success rate in civilian courts, she would find it even more disturbing. And again, if we believe this social castigation only occurs within the confines of our military, our blindness is keeping victims in the shadows.

  • Tony

    Making castration the penalty for rape would IMHO drastically reduce the occurrence of rape.

    • jack_sprat2

      Of course, you’d also be castrating those who’d been falsely accused. Every guy with his 20 in would be out the door at the first opportunity. Good luck getting new recruits.

      That’s okay, though. I’m sure that the gals will be eager to pick up the slack, what with all of those great new shots at command and combat slots. Right?

      • Tony

        False accusation does not mean conviction. I was a lifer and spent over 5 years in combat in French Indochina, I recall only one incident involving groping at a social function. The individual involved was out in 30 days in lieu of a court martial.

  • jack_sprat2

    A very successful Sci/Fi novelist named Piers Anthony wrote a series that obliquely touched on the likely potential difficulties in a coed space navy of the far future. In it, some of the draftees, mostly but not exclusively female, found themselves assigned to sex duty as their MOS. No choices; no opting out.

    It was always a cluster f*** waiting to happen. You generally get a situation in which the women confine themselves to the same small group of very attractive men. It’s a breeding ground for jealousy and resentment. You can’t function well under those circumstances. Something’s got to give. Good order and discipline, certainly.

    Of course, the brass, many of them, duck and cover. They’ve never been entirely free of politics–couldn’t be, inasmuch as every star needs Congressional approval–but it’s gotten worse since the Johnson Administration pretty much required field commanders to lie through their teeth as a daily condition of their jobs. Nowadays, it’s made worse by the fact that their political masters punish those who so much as raise a dissenting voice to social engineering schemes.

  • Facebook User

    What a crock of s—. Women, and men now, being raped in the CG. This is all liberal hyperbole, a topic now in fashion, something ‘creative’ to write about. Lies, lies and more lies fromthe obamanation.

    • Nick Cantalini

      it’s bad…

    • CityMouse

      What years did you serve, in which branch, which conflicts were you assigned, and how many women in the service did you personally know?

      I ask because I served. I served in the Marines, during Serest Storm/Desert Shield, Afgan & Iraqi Freedom. I was with a Huey Helicopter unit. I will tell you, whom ever you are, that I know more women that have been sexually assaulted and/or raped than ones that have enjoyed their time in the ‘brotherhood’ of the military.

      If you are speaking from experience, you are the exception to the rule, and the women that you know are fortunate. However, it appears to me that it is more likely that you are speaking from you ass.

  • Alex

    That’s Ridiculous! It’s lesson learn for all the women out their you should use some self protection device I heard iZap has the best protection device you should check

    • CityMouse

      Instead of making a semi-intelligent comment, you are going to simultaneously argue that women should have to always be on the defense among there military brethren and advertise a weapon that you sell that these military women are not allowed to carry on base?

      Your shameless self promotion is not nearly as atrocious as your concept that women should have to arm themselves against their co-workers.

      Get a life.

      No, wait. Get in the kitchen and make me a SPAM sandwich.

  • Facebook User

    Hey shittymouse, I served my country for four years active, right out of base Boston.
    Your an effing liar and a nobody, climb back in your hole shittymouse!

    • CityMouse

      I poorly assumed you didn’t serve because I have never met a woman that served that has not at least been sexually harassed. I commend your unit for it’s high standards and you as well. My sincere apologies for making an incorrect assumption and handing you an unjust and undue insult. I am sorry that my negative experiences have clouded my judgment so far as to not give you all due respect. I hope I have your understanding.

      • Cows in the cabbage

        Does anyone know how I can locate a network of former or current
        female Marines? As a VA employee I was sexually harassed and stalked by a
        supervisor (a former Marine.) When I reported him, I was fired. I am trying to
        locate women who experienced similar treatment by him when he was in the
        Marines. Thank you.

        • CityMouse

          Because he works for the VA, he was given an honorable discharge. If he had a record while he was in, unfortunately it is now sealed. I’m sorry.

  • beckyblanton

    Didn’t realize the Coast Guard was such a filthy, useless, worthless waste of tax dollars.