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.

On a foggy morning in April, several hundred survivors of military rape filed into the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency in Washington, DC, for the Service Women’s Action Network’s second annual Truth and Justice summit. Throughout the day, survivors, activists, and politicians rallied for more reform, better oversight, and less tolerance for rape within the ranks.

Massachusetts Congresswoman Niki Tsongas was among the speakers. She has been vocal in advocating for new legislation to protect survivors of military rape. In 2011 she coauthored the Defense STRONG Act, which ensures that victims receive legal assistance and have the right to request an expedited transfer away from their alleged attacker.

That morning, Tsongas took the microphone and outlined the “five injustices” endured by military servicemen and women who were assaulted by their fellow soldiers. “The assault is the original betrayal,” she said, but added that the response of the command is the second. The third, she continued, is retaliation within the ranks, and the fourth is the failure of the military justice system. The final betrayal, she said, comes from Veterans Affairs, which oversees the onerous claims process survivors must negotiate to get benefits, including PTSD therapy, counseling, and other medical treatment for injuries stemming from their attacks.

A week earlier, I’d visited Tsongas in her Lowell office to ask her about her efforts to bring the Coast Guard under the same legislative authority as the military branches within the Department of Defense. She admitted that she hadn’t realized the STRONG Act didn’t apply to the Coast Guard until December of last year, when a constituent called and asked for an expedited transfer, as outlined in the measure.

“As we dug into it, we found out that [the Coast Guard wasn’t] subjected to it, and [wasn’t] doing it,” she says. “And then we became aware that as a whole they were not subjected to all of the provisions and all the changes that deal with how the services deal with sexual assault.”

In February, Tsongas and her colleagues drafted a letter to Admiral Robert Papp, the commandant of the Coast Guard, requesting that the Guard align itself with the provisions of the STRONG Act. Papp replied several weeks later, saying the issue was “a top Coast Guard priority,” and that he was committed to making that alignment happen. He met with Tsongas’s staff and cited sexual assault prevention in his State of the Coast Guard address at the end of February. In April, to mark Sexual Assault Awareness month, the Coast Guard released a new strategic plan for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. Officers blogged throughout the month about the need to stop assaults within their ranks. They handed out posters emblazoned with slogans such as “No Bystanders” and “Not in My Guard.” On April 3, officers wore their dress blues on base, as a show of solidarity against sexual violence.

Rear Admiral Neptun says the Guard is in the process of training some 800 shipmates to serve as victim advocates, and is now working to quickly relocate victims who want to be moved off base. He says the Guard has also introduced new family- and sexual-violence training so that its investigative agents can rapidly and robustly respond to reports of attacks. “I think we are meeting the intent and the letter of what the STRONG Act compels the Department of Defense to do,” he says. “We’re doing our absolute best to make sure we are in lockstep with DoD SAPRO and their hierarchy to make sure we’re working together to best effect.”

Still, these actions seem to some like too little, too late. “I do not see how dressing up in one’s dress blues is going to increase prosecution for rape cases,” Bertzikis says. “As for the strategic plan—great start, but right now it is all talk. What is outlined in the strategic plan is not what is being practiced out on the field. The Coast Guard is not holding accountable those who are clearly going against the strategic plan. It is not being enforced.”

In May of this year, Congress began to amp up its scrutiny of the Guard. In a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting on May 14, Senator Mary Landrieu interrogated Admiral Papp about sexual assault within his ranks. “My understanding is that the Coast Guard does not survey its workforce for anonymous claims,” she says. “Are you giving some thought to opening up opportunities for people to respond anonymously…so that we can get a fuller picture of what’s happening within the Coast Guard? Do you think that the Coast Guard is on par with other military branches in terms of support personnel, training, and education programs? And do you have an active victims’ support network?”

Papp seemed overwhelmed, stammering at points in his response. He said the issue was “deeply personal…. You can imagine how frustrating it is to know that people within my Coast Guard are being harmed or hurt, and feel like they have no way to be able to respond.” He said he believed that his efforts had led more people to come forward, increasing the number of reported cases this year.

He added that he was open to instituting an anonymous survey, as well as creating full-time sexual-response coordinators. But the Coast Guard’s budget is scheduled to be slashed by $1.2 billion in the coming year.

Six days later, Tsongas and her colleagues introduced the U.S. Coast Guard STRONG act, a twin of her 2011 bill. “With this bill, sexual assault survivors from the Coast Guard will be afforded the same protections as other service members,” she said in a statement. “This is a vital step toward creating an environment that takes victims out of harm’s way, encourages them to report these crimes and helps bring those responsible to justice.” On June 6, the House Armed Services Committee included the provision in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which approves funding and sets policy for the armed forces. The act will be voted on at some point later this year.

As for Bertzikis, she sees the fight as far from over. “As long as I keep getting those emails from survivors, it’s my obligation to help them.” she says. “In the military they tell you, ‘Don’t leave anyone behind.’ I may not be wearing my uniform, but it’s still my duty to my country to help the service members and to help my shipmates. It’s still my duty to help them.”

  • 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.