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Cadets: Coast Guard Academy has ‘corrosive pattern’ of assault

Jennifer Yount, Kyra Holmstrup, Caitlin Maro and Melissa McCafferty (from left to right) testified before Congress with their stories of sexual harassment and assault that they experienced at the Coast Guard Academy.
Jennifer Yount, Kyra Holmstrup, Caitlin Maro and Melissa McCafferty (from left to right) testified before Congress with their stories of sexual harassment and assault that they experienced at the Coast Guard Academy.

One by one, former and current female cadets told personal and emotional stories before Congress on Tuesday of sexual harassment and assault while attending the Coast Guard Academy in New London.

Their stories spanned decades, going back as far as the 1980s and as recently as 2020 from a current cadet who will graduate from the academy next year.

For some, they experienced multiple instances of sexual misconduct throughout their time at the school and later during their service in the Coast Guard. Many of the women noted that the assaults happened within the first few weeks or in their first year.

Some of the women did not report their assaults, while others said they reluctantly confided in others, which prompted investigations.

But the common thread between the four women was that they all feared coming forward and the retaliation that often comes with reporting sexual assault allegations. And their perpetrators largely remain in leadership positions to this day, or are honorably retired, and hold leadership positions in civilian life.

And they argue it is indicative of a pervasive and systemic culture problem within the Coast Guard and its service academy that continues to exist, at least in some forms.

“My experiences are not isolated events. There are hundreds of similar stories within the academy and throughout the fleet involving officers and enlisted members alike,” said retired Lt. Melissa McCafferty, who graduated in 2011. “As a result, there exists a corrosive pattern of sexual assault, harassment, abuse, bullying, intimidation and retaliation. This is insidious, this is pervasive, and this is continuing to this day.”

McCafferty and the other witnesses who attended the Coast Guard Academy testified Tuesday at a hearing convened by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who is chairman of the Homeland Security Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation. Retired Col. Lorry Fenner, who served in the Air Force and is director of government affairs for the Service Women’s Action Network, also sat on the witness panel.

The hearing was part of the subcommittee’s inquiry into why Coast Guard leaders failed to disclose “Operation Fouled Anchor,” a years-long investigation into dozens of substantiated sexual assault claims at the Coast Guard Academy between 1988 and 2006, and why many of them were not properly handled. The investigation wrapped up after a few years but remained hidden until a CNN report over the summer.

Commandant Linda Fagan apologized for the Coast Guard’s inaction and failure to disclose to Congress. Last week, she released a 90-day internal review addressing the culture problems within the service and its academy as well as reforms that will be implemented. But federal lawmakers and some of the witnesses believe the accountability needs to go much further.

“Acknowledging this broken trust is an important first step in reestablishing it. However, a report will not in and of itself rebuild trust,” the report from Coast Guard leaders reads. “It must start with the Coast Guard providing opportunities for victims to tell their story.”

Blumenthal and Subcommittee Ranking Member Ron Johnson, R-Wis., noted they have not received any of the requested internal emails within the Coast Guard about why leaders decided against informing Congress about Fouled Anchor. Both said they would consider issuing subpoenas if the Coast Guard does not turn over such emails.

“We’ve heard accounts from numerous individuals with disturbing personal stories … of sexual assault and harassment at the Coast Guard Academy and in the Coast Guard,” Blumenthal said. “Those survivors include both men and women, and they span nearly five decades of Coast Guard, alumni and retirees. Four of these brave individuals are here with us today.”

Retired Commander Jennifer Yount said she was part of the second class of women to graduate from the academy in 1981 and went on to serve for 20 years. She said she was first assaulted in 1978 when male cadets broke down her door and jumped on top of her and a friend, eventually getting up to leave. She did not report the assault but said she received demerits because the damaged door constituted destruction of government property. She said she faced other instances of harassment on two ships.

McCafferty also did not report her assaults. When she was a freshman in the late 2000s, she said, she was invited to visit New York City by a male upperclassman who told her he got two hotel rooms. When she arrived, McCafferty said he only booked one room and raped her multiple times during that trip.

Caitlin Maro said she has been public about her assault for nearly two decades. She said she was groped multiple times, with some of those instances being witnessed by 20 or 30 people. She voluntarily left the academy after one semester in 2005.

Maro said she learned she was part of the Fouled Anchor investigation from a CNN reporter. She said it runs counter to Fagan’s testimony to Congress over the summer that victims named in the report were contacted by the Coast Guard. Maro said she has not heard from anyone in the service and was told to send a public records request when asking for her personal documentation from her time at the academy.

While those three witnesses are former members, First Class Cadet Kyra Holmstrup was the only one to testify who currently attends the Coast Guard Academy. She is a senior graduating in 2024 and serves as president of Cadets Against Sexual Assault.

Holmstrup said she went on an ice cream date with a male cadet who was part of her training platoon. She testified that he forced himself on her after repeatedly saying no.

“I hope to share my story today to exemplify the progress that our academy still must make, and I hope to humanize the many statistics on sexual assault,” Holmstrup said. “We always talk about how trauma stems from the assault. But the reporting system continues to re-victimize and causes trauma of its own.”

As a current cadet who is involved in the issue on campus, Holmstrup said she is “optimistic” about the future at the academy and within the service. She said those reporting her assault followed protocol, and she was offered a special victims counsel.

“We do have a lot of measures in place to support victims and survivors after they report. But, like I reference in my written testimony, we still need to buttress some of those,” Holmstrup said.

But McCafferty, who was working in the front office and at headquarters until she retired in 2019, testified that she witnessed senior leaders protect one another and act as “gatekeepers.” She said that they chose which infractions to enforce and argued that they ultimately prioritized getting promotions over accountability.

Some of the witnesses named specific recommendations related to culture on campus and the reporting process for sexual misconduct.

Yount recommended limiting the consumption of alcohol on campus and improved record management to enable sexual assault survivors to receive disability compensation.

And Holmstrup suggested that individuals who have been kicked out of the Coast Guard should be prevented from enlisting in other service branches, as well as more enforcement of no-contact orders on campus.

Others pressed Blumenthal and Johnson to bring in Fagan and her predecessor Adm. Karl Schultz, who was commandant when the Fouled Anchor investigation ended, to testify before the Senate subcommittee.

Maro said she wants answers from Fagan about why some people were not contacted about their inclusion in the investigation, as well as why some leaders went unpunished. She also argued for Schultz, who has not yet appeared before any congressional committee about Fouled Anchor, to explain why it went ignored.

“You’ve read our minds,” Blumenthal said in response to Maro’s request. “We’re certainly going to pursue those two individuals and others.”

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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