Base Boston: Rape and Sexual Assault in the Coast Guard
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.