‘I was in fear.’ Coast Guard Academy whistleblowers testify before Congress

Four women are testifying before Congress, saying they were sexually assaulted at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London.

John Craven

Dec 12, 2023, 5:47 PM

Updated 223 days ago

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Sexual abuse is “pervasive” at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, according to four current and former cadets who offered graphic testimony before Congress on Tuesday.
The hearing before a Senate subcommittee came several months after CNN uncovered decades of abuse allegations at the Academy.
“THEY WATCHED AND THEY LAUGHED”
In often tearful testimony, the whistleblowers said that behind the pomp and pageantry of the Coast Guard Academy lies a dark history of sexual assault.
“I was in fear because he was my next-door neighbor and he had a very angry outburst,” said Kyra Holmstrup, a senior at the Academy.  “My classmates stopped talking to me after I spiraled into a deep depression.”
Caitlin Maro said she dropped out of school after an assault in 2004, while her alleged attacker went on to become an officer.
“I was groped in a room with 30 of my peers,” she told senators. “And they watched and they laughed.”
Another former cadet, retired Lt. Melissa McCafferty, said she attempted suicide because of two rapes in the late 2000s.
“This is insidious,” she said. “This is pervasive, and this continues to this day.”
SECRET INVESTIGATION
Sexual assault accusations – and a lack of accountability – are nothing new at the Coast Guard Academy, according to an internal report dubbed “Operation Fouled Anchor”. The explosive probe looked at dozens of substantiated cases between 1988 and 2006.
“It is evident to me that Academy leadership often failed to undertake sufficient action to ensure a safe environment,” Vice Admiral Michael McAllister concluded in the report.
But McAllister also opted to “take no formal action.”
“Fouled Anchor” was not made public – including to Congress – until CNN disclosed it this summer. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who chaired Tuesday’s hearing, said the Coast Guard is still withholding internal e-mails related to the investigation. Blumenthal did not rule out issuing subpoenas for the documents.
“This hearing is about a culture of cover-up. it is a culture of cover-up that the Coast Guard has spawned and sustained for decades,” Blumenthal said. “And it's a culture that has fostered fear – fear of coming forward, fear that lives would be destroyed.”
All four former cadets said Coast Guard Academy leadership dismissed their sexual assault claims.
“After an investigation was forced, the same company commander admitted that he didn't start an investigation because – quote – he figured that ‘it happened on a date,’” Maro testified.
COAST GUARD RESPONDS
In a statement following Tuesday’s hearing, the U.S. Coast Guard acknowledged mistakes, and promised to be more forthcoming with Congress:
“As evidenced by our own investigations and today’s testimony, the Coast Guard failed in its handling of some past sexual assault cases, and it failed again when this information was not shared with Congress. We sincerely apologize for these failures and the harm they caused. The Coast Guard deeply regrets the trauma that victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment experience and how it erodes the trust of current and former members of our Service.
There is absolutely no place in the Coast Guard for sexual assault or sexual harassment. We recognize and applaud the tremendous courage of the witnesses who came forward to share their personal stories at today’s hearing before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Their reflections and recommendations, and those of all survivors, are essential to our efforts to continuously improve our prevention and response policies.
We take every allegation of sexual misconduct seriously. We are committed to ensuring every member of our workforce has an experience aligned with our core values and free from harassment, assault, hazing, bullying, hate, or retaliation. The Coast Guard urges all members, past and present, to report instances of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other harmful behaviors so we can provide support to victims, investigate thoroughly, and ensure appropriate accountability.
We must ensure EVERY Coast Guard workplace has a climate that deters harmful behaviors and gives everyone the positive Coast Guard experience they expect and deserve, and we are holding leaders accountable for the culture they enable at every Coast Guard unit. We continue to take steps to improve accountability and transparency within the Service and will continue to work with Congress. The results of our recent Accountability and Transparency Review and the resultant directed actions can be viewed here.”
SLOW PROGRESS
Holmstrup, the only whistleblower who still attends the Academy, told senators the climate has improved since Rear Admiral Michael Johnston took over the Academy this year.
But progress is slow. In a survey last year, 28% of Coast Guard members said they have been subjected to unwanted sexual contact. But only 15% reported it.
“Us doing the same thing over and over again – that stack of reports – is not going to solve the problem,” said Lorry Fenner, a retired Air Force colonel who works with the Service Women’s Action Network.
Fenner and others told senators that a culture of drinking at the Academy needs to change. But they said the biggest change must be accountability: sexual assault allegations must be investigated and perpetrators kicked-out.


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