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.

By | Boston Magazine |

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.


The Coast Guard determined that E-3 seaman Panayiota Bertzikis wasn’t cut out for the “stresses” of life in the service. She sums it up more bluntly: “I was told I was having problems adjusting to being raped.” (Photograph by Minesh Bacrania)

The Coast Guard Academy responded to these numbers by hiring a new sexual-assault response coordinator in February, and unveiled a new training program shortly thereafter. But when the academy’s superintendent, Rear Admiral Sandra Stosz, spoke about the new program in March, she did little to alleviate the concerns of observers. “At a time when they’re exploring their identity, it’s somewhat natural to have people experiment with what it takes to attract a person of the opposite sex,” Stosz told The Day, New London’s daily newspaper. “If, one time, a guy or gal is clumsy or stupid and tries to touch someone and they’re repulsed, they learn. Someone who goes around and keeps trying many times, that’s a different kind of behavior than someone who is awkward and experimenting.” Her remarks reflect “the pure ignorance of the dynamics of sexual violence,” Stacy Malone, the executive director of the Victim Rights Law Center, in Boston, says. “She’s basically saying sexual assault is a miscommunication. And we know it’s not. Sexual assault is not about sex, it’s about power.”

According to Elsa Nethercot, who retired from the Guard as a first-class boatswain’s mate in 2007 after more than 20 years in the service, sexual harassment and assault have been endemic to the Coast Guard for decades. Back then, she says, they were “a condition of your continued employment.”

Nethercot says it’s unsettling to see these same problems playing out now. “These young women at small boat stations or ships, they’re getting raped by senior personnel and told to suck it up or deal with it, or they’re going to get booted,” she says. “It’s a corporate mentality. The Coast Guard will almost always support the person in whom they have the biggest financial investment.”

Mary Kelley Richard, who was among the first active-duty women to serve in the Guard, in 1974, and who later became an advocate with the National Women’s Veterans conference, says harassment was an “everyday fact of life” at her first two duty stations. “I just knew mine was coming,” she says. “I just didn’t know where it was coming from.” Seven months into her career, she was raped by a superior officer. “We had the same issues then that we have today,” Richard says. “It’s very disappointing to me to see that there has not been any significant progress.”


Panayiota Bertzikis is slight, with light-brown hair and delicate features. Her voice carries the hint of a New York accent; growing up, she spent summers boating on Long Island Sound. Those summers played a part in her decision to join the Coast Guard in 2005, at the age of 23. “I liked the job description,” she recalls. “The adventure, being out on the boat. I wanted to be a marine-science technician, cleaning up oil spills.”

Bertzikis wound up stationed in Burlington, Vermont. One afternoon in May 2006, she set off on a hike with her company when, she says, one of her shipmates pulled her aside, threw her to the ground, punched her in the face, and then raped her. Bertzikis reported the assault shortly after the attack, but she says that her commanders ordered her to “shut up,” and warned her that her accusation amounted to slander against her attacker. When she wouldn’t let it go, she says she was locked in a janitor’s closet during the investigation. Bertzikis says that when the investigation went nowhere, she was forced to live alongside her attacker, and the two of them were told to “work out their differences.”

Eventually, she was reassigned to Maine. There, she was given a performance evaluation and found competent by her new commander, who said he would try to move her back to Burlington. “I just started crying, and broke down,” Bertzikis says. The commander helped her open a new investigation. “He told me, ‘We’re going to send you to Boston. There are going to be people there that are going to help,’” Bertzikis says. “I felt like, ‘Finally they’re going to take care of this.’”

In July, Bertzikis was transferred to Base Boston. She arrived on a Friday and spent the weekend alone in the barracks. On Monday, her new shipmates returned from a weekend away. They already knew about her. “You’re trying to get him in trouble,” they said of her rapist. “He told us you were crazy.” For the next several months, she says she was shunned by the bulk of her shipmates. Those who did speak to her often harassed and threatened her, she says. One day, she says, a group of her shipmates surrounded her while she was walking back to her barracks during a lunch break. She says they started groping her and ripping her clothing. “You’re hot,” one said. “I’d like to rape you, too.” She reported the harassment, she says, but nothing happened. Instead, she says, her victim advocate—the person assigned to help her get assistance for the rape—encouraged her to remain silent.

Still, she continued to believe that eventually her investigation would validate her claims, that her rapist would be punished, and that she would move on with her career and up through the ranks. But in 2007, a Coast Guard psychiatrist diagnosed Bertzikis with an adjustment disorder. Deemed unfit to serve, she was given an administrative discharge. According to the Department of Defense, more than 93 percent of all rape cases in the military end without a conviction. Military doctors often diagnose rape victims like Bertzikis with personality or adjustment disorders after they report attacks. The military then considers them unfit to serve, and discharges them. Meanwhile, their accused attackers often continue with their careers.

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.


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.”

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