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At hearing on military harassment, concerns about sex abuse in Coast Guard are aired

By KEVIN G. HALL | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: July 30, 2020

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — A congressional hearing Wednesday on sexual harassment, assault and bullying in the military, held in the wake of the murder in Texas of a female soldier, spotlighted how the Defense Department and the Coast Guard continue to fail to protect women service members from abuse — often by superiors — despite a decadelong effort to address the problem.

“In an institution that prides itself in cohesiveness, to leave no soldier behind, we are failing,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who heads the Military Personnel subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, said at the start of the emotional hearing she chaired.

Speier has long been a crusader for women’s issues in the military, and efforts — which coincided with reporting by McClatchy in 2011 and 2013 to spotlight the issue of rape in the military — led to changes in the armed forces treatment of such complaints.

But the problem has not gone away, and Speier called the hearing to highlight problems in light of the April 22 murder of Vanessa Guillen, a 20-year-old Army specialist who was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. She had complained to family of sexual harassment by a sergeant who had abused others, before being murdered by a fellow enlistee who later killed himself after her dismembered remains were located.

A “No Mas” caravan from Texas is due to arrive at the nation’s capital on Thursday, where a protest is planned to honor Guillen and to call for action on sexual abuse and harassment. Hashtags have cropped up in her support and against harassment, such as #IamVanessaGuillen and #JusticeforVanessaGuillen.

In Speier’s opening remarks Wednesday, Speier also cited the recent McClatchy-Miami Herald series “Silenced No More,” which detailed retaliation for reporting incidents of sexual harassment and improper conduct.

“The Coast Guard is outside this committee’s jurisdiction but the cultural rot is the same,” said Speier, citing the dozens of women who have stepped forward to tell their stories after the ongoing series began running July 13.

In that series, McClatchy and the Herald provided a survey for Coast Guard personnel past and present to reach out and tell their stories, either with their names attached or anonymously. More than 55 people responded to the survey in the first few weeks, with several more reaching out on a specially created email to tell of abuse and retaliation. The correspondence came from current and past service members who told of rape, harassment, verbal abuse and indiscipline.

Some of the incidents happened at sea, others on base or assignments. Some dated back two decades, some were months ago. They shared a common theme — retaliation after they complained.

Speier also cited anonymous screenshots received by McClatchy that showed personnel were called into the office of superiors for posting supportive messages. Another screenshot appeared to warn service members in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where two of the stories in the series were set.

“No matter what your opinion or stance is on these articles, please PLEASE make sure that you and your crews refrain from making any comments that can discredit you or the Coast Guard,” said the internal message sent to enlisted leaders. “Apparently some people have been posting some very demeaning and inappropriate things and the MCPOCG’s office has taken notice.”

That office is the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, the most senior enlisted officer in Coast Guard headquarters and a main adviser to the commandant. The post is presently held by MCPOCG Jason M. Vanderhaden.

The internal message ended on a positive note, saying that if nothing else “the articles may open up dialog about the serious problem of sexual assault and ways to prevent it.”

The McClatchy-Herald survey responses are noteworthy because they follow a December hearing by the House Government Oversight Committee into retaliation against professors at the prestigious Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, who had complained about sexual harassment. That congressional panel issued a report titled “Righting the Ship” that concluded harassment problems were not limited to the academy but spread across the service.

The Coast Guard drew the ire of Congress when Adm. Karl Schultz, the commandant, did not attend and sent an underling, Vice Adm. Michael McAllister, to take the heat from lawmakers. McAllister said he knew of no widespread problem of sexual abuse or harassment in the Coast Guard and said he wanted to hear from those who thought otherwise.

In January, weeks after the hearing, McAllister sent out a servicewide reminder to Coast Guard personnel, saying sexual harassment would not be tolerated. There are proposed bills in the House of Representatives and Senate to take more discretion out of the Coast Guard or armed forces investigative process and have neutral parties field cases where there are complaints of sexual harassment or abuse.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Speier and other members cited the #MeToo movement in helping to embolden women in the armed forces.

“For too long they have lived and suffered in silence. Silenced by a culture that doesn’t trust women, that questions their competence, that is suspicious of their motives, that perceives them as weak and unreliable,” she said, echoing a frustration over inaction. “I have spent 10 years on this, I don’t take any pride in the numbers going up or down because frankly nothing has changed. For all we have done, not much has changed. We haven’t fixed it.”

The congresswoman was echoed by Rep. Trent Kelly, a Mississippi Republican, who noted he witnessed harassment during his military career.

“Sexual harassment, like any exploitation or maltreatment, undermines and dishonors the sacrifices they make for each and every one of us in this nation,” he said, adding that “sexual harassment demeans the service of each victim.”

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