Combatting Sexual Assault in the Coast Guard: A Decade of Reflection

U.S. Coast Guard headquarters, Washington, D.C. (USCG file image)
U.S. Coast Guard headquarters, Washington, D.C. (USCG file image)

Published Feb 4, 2024 12:51 PM by Denise Krepp


Ten years ago I wrote an essay in Maritime Executive about my testimony before a Congressionally mandated panel examining sexual assault in the military and in the Coast Guard. I shared how the crime inhibits good order and discipline, and how it is a threat that must be destroyed. That same message is true today.

In the 2014 essay, I advocated for the removal of the chain of command from the decisionmaking processes related to sexual assault. I shared how victims weren’t reporting the crimes for fear of retaliation. My voice was part of a choir of advocates urging Congress to change the law, and they listened. Starting in December 2023, the decision to prosecute sexual assault now resides with the Offices of Special Trial Counsel.

My second recommendation was to create an environment of respect for women. That recommendation was based on personal experience as a Coast Guard officer in the late 1990s. Women were put into three informal “categories,” and all of them were lurid and disrespectful. Which was I?

Those categories came roaring back in my mind when reading 2013 articles about a defense attorney for a US Naval Academy midshipman who asked a rape survivor on the witness stand whether or not she felt like a "ho." I implored readers to treat their female military colleagues as equals.

I recently listened to Lieutenant Melissa McCafferty’s podcast interview with Michelle Goodwin for Ms. magazine. McCafferty shared that the demeaning tradition of categorization of women is still alive in the Coast Guard in 2024. So I’ll repeat my ask: stop the name calling, stop the lurid categorization of women, and treat women with respect.

My third recommendation was to hold senior leaders accountable for bad behavior. It’s a trust issue. Sexual assault survivors aren’t going to report crimes if those in the upper echelons of power within an organization aren’t held accountable for their own actions. I made this recommendation in February 2014.

Seven months later and unbeknownst to the American public, the Coast Guard initiated Operation Fouled Anchor. The 2014 investigation was triggered by a rape that occurred at the US Coast Guard Academy in 1997. Over the next six years, the Coast Guard investigated cases at the school from 1990 to 2006.

The investigation was completed in 2020 and per the final report “during the 1990s there appeared to be a disturbing pattern of conducting internal administrative investigations and/or initiating disenrollment for sexual misconduct instead of referring the matter for criminal investigation.” The report was then shelved, never shared with Congress - or anyone else for that matter - until CNN reported on it last summer.

Holding senior leaders accountable means holding former Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz accountable for not sharing the report with Congress. I first met Admiral Schultz when he worked in the Coast Guard Congressional Affairs office in the mid-2000s. I was serving as Senior Counsel on the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee at the time. I received formal briefings from Shultz and informal phone calls.

One of these phone calls related to the rape of a US Coast Guard Academy student and I thought about the call when reading the 2023 CNN article. The Coast Guard called me, a Congressional staffer, almost 20 years ago to talk about the rape of a single student. Admiral Schultz should have briefed Congress on a report that referenced 43 cases. But he didn’t, and now five different Congressional committees and the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General are combing over Coast Guard files trying to figure out what happened.

The Congressional oversight effort includes a request for documentation. All five have requested unredacted documentation. In a December 19, 2023, Senator Blumenthal and Senator Johnson, chair and ranking member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs sent a letter to the service stating “the Coast Guard’s culture of cover-up has allowed sexual assault and sexual harassment to persist for decades, both at the Academy and in the Coast Guard.” The senators asked that unredacted documentation be shared with the committee by January 19, 2024 and there is no indication that the service has done so.

Sadly, holding past leaders accountable now means holding Admiral Fagan accountable for not sharing documentation with Congress in 2024. Authorization and appropriation hearings start in the next couple of months. Members will ask why she isn’t sharing information with them. They’ll ask why the service is sending redacted Freedom of Information Act responses to survivors, and they’ll ask why no one was prosecuted for the 43 cases highlighted in the report and the subsequent crimes.

In my 2014 essay, I warned readers of the long-term impacts of unaddressed sexual assault. Victims must trust that the system will work if an incident occurs. If it doesn’t, trust is lost, and good order and discipline are gone.

In Fiscal Year 2023, the Coast Guard had a shortfall of 3,500 people and there is no indication that the service will meet its 2024 recruiting goal. After reading the multiple 2023 articles about Operation Fouled Anchor and/or watching the December 2023 Senate hearing, what parent recommends that their child goes into a service wherein sexual assault isn’t prosecuted? What parent tells their child to join a service wherein service leaders hide reports from Congress?

I want my Coast Guard to succeed. I want the American public to trust my service. But for both to happen, current Coast Guard leaders must share all documentation with Congress, unredacted. They must hold past leaders accountable for failing to communicate with Congress. They must hold past leaders accountable for failing to prosecute sexual assault, they must hold individuals who committed sexual assault accountable, and they must be more transparent with the sexual assaults that are being prosecuted today.

K. Denise Rucker Krepp is a former Coast Guard officer and former Maritime Administration Chief Counsel.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.