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.”