Civilian engineer says she was sexually assaulted on Navy ship, sues service for not protecting her
Stars and Stripes November 30, 2023
A civilian engineer serving on a Navy transportation vessel has filed a lawsuit claiming she was sexually assaulted by the ship’s captain in her bed — an attack she said the service could have prevented with adequate security and safety policies.
The ship, part of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, lacked oversight of the captain’s use of a master key code that gave him complete access to the vessel, according to the 31-page lawsuit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey. The ship also lacked working security cameras, kept incomplete logs of crew members coming and going from the vessel, and the command’s staff deterred crew members from reporting sexual assaults.
The suit also claims the ship’s captain was known among the crew for having an alcohol problem, missed work because of it, and drank alcohol on the ship, which violated command policy.
The captain is a civilian who is not named in the suit. The engineer, Elsie Dominguez, is seeking a jury trial in her civil case. However, she is also awaiting the outcome of a criminal report that she filed earlier this year with Navy investigators.
“She wants to create systemic change in the industry to make it safer for all mariners,” said Christine Dunn, an attorney for Dominguez. “She wants to empower other mariners who have gone through something similar to feel comfortable coming forward. Things cannot change unless you shine a light on them, and so she wants to help do that.”
Dominguez, 2014 graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, was working as the first assistant engineer aboard the USNS Carson City, an expeditionary fast transport vessel, in December 2021 when she said the ship’s captain used a master key code to access her private room overnight and rape her in her bed.
The Navy failed to care for and protect her when she reported the attack the next morning using the proper reporting procedures, according to the suit.
The Navy’s Military Sealift Command operates 130 civilian-crewed ships that replenish Navy ships, conduct special missions, and strategically move and preposition cargo at sea around the world, said Tom Van Leunen, command spokesman. The workforce is comprised of 5,547 civilian mariners working aboard ships, 1,434 civilians in shore jobs, 347 active-duty service members and 956 reservists.
The Carson City is a catamaran with a flight deck for helicopter operations and a loading ramp to enable vehicles to drive on and off the ship quickly.
Van Leunen declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, but said the command takes sexual assault seriously and remains committed to a safe and respectful environment for all personnel.
“We firmly hold our crews accountable for their actions, promote a culture of trust, respect, and zero tolerance towards any form of misconduct or abuse within our ranks,” he said.
Before filing the lawsuit, Dunn filed an administrative complaint with the Navy on Dominguez’s behalf. The Navy responded this is a worker’s compensation issue, Dunn said.
“We think that’s a pretty shocking position to take because worker’s comp is really intended to cover injury sustained in performance of one’s duties. So, the Navy has to successfully argue when a person goes to work aboard a U.S. Navy vessel, they should expect that being raped in their bed while they lie there unconscious is a part of their work duties,” the attorney said.
Dominguez reported her assault to Naval Criminal Investigative Service in June and the case is now with the Department of Justice’s Office of Human Rights and Special Prosecutions to determine whether criminal charges will be filed against the captain, said Ryan Melogy, an attorney representing Dominguez for the criminal investigation.
On the night that Dominguez said she was raped, she believes someone drugged her while at a bar in Brindisi, Italy, where the ship was docked. After one beer and one shot, she felt overly intoxicated and required two people to bring her back on the ship to her room, where she was left alone and unconscious, according to court documents. During the night, the captain of the ship entered her room using a master key code and raped her, she claims.
“I am so embarrassed by what I did to you that I do not even have the strength to see you face to face ... I hope that someday you can forgive me. You have a very special place in my heart and I appreciate you very much. Perhaps more than I should. I wish you the best,” the captain wrote to Dominguez in a text message the next day, according to court documents.
Dominguez attempted to get a drug test, but she said she needed the captain’s permission to do so and felt the captain threatened to derail her career when she asked for permission. She then found sexual-assault reporting instructions online and called the command’s sexual assault response coordinator through a helpline. Dominguez said she asked the advocate to make a restricted report that would prevent personally identifying information from being sent to her chain of command. She was told she could not.
Instead, the advocate told Dominguez that her only option was unrestricted reporting, which meant she would be removed from her job immediately and flown from Italy to the United States where she would be interviewed by federal law enforcement agents and forced into a public process. The advocate also told Dominguez that she would not be allowed to return to work for the command until the criminal investigation closed, which could take more than a year.
“When Ms. Dominguez told the civilian victim advocate that the process she was describing sounded like she was going to lose her job for reporting a rape, the civilian victim advocate told her that was correct,” according to the lawsuit.
Military Sealift Command follows guidance from the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office and federal law that only allows for restricted reporting for military personnel and their adult dependents, Van Leunen said.
“Unrestricted reporting allows victims to receive medical treatment, advocacy services, legal support, and eligibility for expedited transfer. In addition, unrestricted reporting allows victims of sexual assault to report retaliation in the [Sexual Assault Prevention and Response] program,” he said.
The lawsuit contends these options were not presented to Dominguez, and instead she feared her career would be sidelined. When she did file a report in June, Melogy said he believes she remained on the job because she had hired an attorney.
After the assault, Dominguez still lived in the room where the rape occurred for nearly two years, though she was able to have a deadbolt lock installed on the door. She took leave in October, her attorneys said.
Following her report, Military Sealift Command returned the captain to the U.S., and “has protected the captain, shielded him from scrutiny, and continued to employ him,” according to the lawsuit.