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.


  • 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.