Sexual Assault in the Coast Guard
August 24, 2013
In the July issue of Boston magazine, I wrote a story about sexual assault in the Coast Guard. I began reporting the story over two years ago, before the Invisible War and Congressional hearings pushed military sexual trauma into the headlines on a seemingly weekly basis. In the piece, I tell the story of Coast Guard E-3 seaman Panayiota Bertzikis, who says she was raped while serving in the Coast Guard in August, 2006. In the years since her attack, Bertzikis founded the Military Rape Crisis Center, and has become one of the country’s loudest voices against sexual assault in the military.
Over the past several years, as Congressional legislation has begun helping victims in other services, Bertzikis and the her team at the MRCC have collaborated with other advocacy groups to call attention to the Coast Guard’s precarious situation. Because their organization falls under the Department of Homeland Security, Coasties, as they’re called, are not provided the same legal protections as other service members who serve under the Department of Defense. So Bertzikis and her colleagues have taken the issue to Congress, and started a petition to ensure the Coast Guard falls under same protections granted to the other branches. They are urging them to submit annual reports on sexual assault that includes anonymous surveys, and they want support for survivors at every Coast Guard installation. “Many survivors and civilian service providers report that phone calls and emails to the SARC in Boston are often not returned leaving the survivors alone, scared and vulnerable for repeat attacks,” he petition states. It was their work in part that resulted in the introduction of the Coast Guard Strong Act, which will put the Guard under the same protections as the other branches of the military. It was recently incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014, which is still awaiting Senate approval.
While this bill and others have worked their way through Congress, the Military Rape Crisis Center’s blog, My Duty To Speak, has served as a forum for service men and women from all the armed forces to share their experiences with sexual violence. Though the submissions are often anonymous, together they create a portrait of what life is like for a service member attempting to find justice. Scrolling through the Coast Guard postings throughout my reporting offered a glimpse into just how precarious that isolation can be, and can make one dizzy with frustration. And thanks to her work on behalf of Coast Guard victims, Bertzikis has been receiving many more submissions from the branch as of late:
On November 4, 2012, an active duty Coast Guardsman wrote that they had faced retaliation for seeking treatment for rape: “The investigation came back as not enough evidence to move forward,” they write. “Everyone found out and called me a liar for crying rape. I was told that because I was the one in the loony bin and not my rapist that something was obviously wrong with me.”
On January 10, 2013, a Senior Chief in the Coast Guard wrote seeking advice from blog readers. He said that after exchanging e-mails with a rape victim who considered him a mentor. Despite the fact that she did not mention her rape in e-mails, “After her command discovered e-mails between the rape victim and me I was forced to cease all communications with her,” the Chief writes. “I am angry with the Coast Guard for putting me in a situation to choose between an organization that I love and a shipmate that was raped.”
On February 20, 2013 a non-rate officer wrote in to share her experience, saying that while she had heard about rape problems in the military, her recruiter had told her that it was “all DoD problems and that the Coast Guard is the ‘most women-friendly’ branch of service.” She then writes: “My sexual assault happened on December 22, 2012. I was awaken [sic] by a Petty Officer first class with his hand down my pants. I screamed. He ran out. When I was asked about my scream I lied and said that I was having a bad dream. We have at least two women here that are here because they have been raped…Several often make fun of them…The Chief and others often hear the jokes but not once put an end to them.”
On April 5, 2013 a Coast Guard seaman wrote in to report that they were raped twice and still serving with their rapist. After struggling to deal with flashbacks, they reached out to a local rape crisis center who said they had no Coast Guard contact in their state, and sent her to the National Guard sexual response coordinator instead. “One day I got a sudden burst of bravery and called the Coast Guard SARC in my district but since I refused to give my name I was hung up on,” she writes. “Picking up the phone and saying: “Hello. My name is so and so and I do not know you but I want to report a rape” is freaking hard! …[W]hy was the National Guard able to talk to me when I did not feel comfortable sharing my name but not the Coast Guard?”
And on August 9, 2013, a rape victim wrote to express frustration that she didn’t get support from her victim advocate. “The Coast Guard does not allow non-Coast Guard victim advocates to serve as victim advocates. I requested Panayiota as my victim advocate and the Coast Guard denied it. Instead they gave me 3 different victim advocates within a year. By the time I felt comfortable with one they gave me a new one. The irony of it all is that at times they did not know the answers to my questions and they’ll ask me to ask Panayiota and then requested to know what Panayiota has said so that they can know for future victims. Even though Panayiota was not allowed on base with me and at the hearing she was the only one that was stable in my life and the first person I emailed or called after getting any updates about my case. All of the victim advocates were very nice people but I felt that they were not trained enough. Every other branch of the military allows non-military members to assist rape victims why doesn’t the Coast Guard?”
It was my hope that through this article I’d be able to help share those stories with the public. Fortunately, Slate picked it up, and it stimulated some great conversations online. Here’s hoping that the Coast Guard shipmates get the support they need, and soon.