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Amid lingering reports of sexual harassment in ranks, Biden to address Coast Guard cadets

First female graduate of the Coast Guard's rescue swimmer school, Sara Faulker. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS)

A growing debate over the ability of the armed services to investigate sexual assault and harassment provides a backdrop of controversy to President Joe Biden’s commencement address this week at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. It comes amid a high-profile case at the academy.

Legislation is being drafted in both chambers of Congress that would put an independent body in charge of investigations into military sex crimes. This would bring changes to all branches of the armed services.

Coast Guard leadership had been under scrutiny for more than 18 months after the December 2019 release of a congressional report about mishandling of assault and harassment complaints. The service and its elite rescue swimmer program were also the focus of a yearlong series of stories, “Silenced No More” in 2020 by the Miami Herald and McClatchy.

Now, the New London, Connecticut-based academy where Biden will speak on Wednesday is in the spotlight anew for the abrupt removal on April 27 of Command Master Chief Brett VerHulst.

A command master chief is the highest-ranking enlisted member at any given command. The Navy Times first reported that VerHulst, 50, who was approaching retirement, suddenly quit late last month and was simultaneously removed from his post, at least temporarily, pending a probe.

McClatchy and the Miami Herald have learned from multiple sources with knowledge of the case that VerHulst is under investigation for alleged inappropriate sexual conduct with a female cadet at the academy. Inappropriate conduct covers a wide range of possibilities, from innuendo to outright attempts to use rank for sexual favors.

Reached on his cellphone and told the details shared with McClatchy and the Herald, VerHulst politely said he had to remain silent pending the ongoing probe.

“I don’t have any comment on anything at this time,” he said. “I am just waiting for the investigation to be done.”

Before being stationed as Command Master Chief at academy in 2017, VerHulst, according to his online biography page, served as command master chief for the 17th Coast Guard District in Juneau, Alaska. It said he was won two merit awards and served on three Coast Guard cutters and had assignments in Massachusetts, Oregon, Louisiana and California.

It’s unclear if Biden will use his commencement address to spotlight the issue of sexual harassment, which surveys among cadets show continues to be problematic. But Biden did tackle the them in his Armed Forces Day proclamation on May 14.

“My Administration is committed to confronting and driving out sexual assault and harassment, so that all members of the Armed Services feel safe and welcome in the ranks,” his proclamation noted.

White House officials would not comment on whether the president plans to acknowledge persistent sexual assault and harassment in the armed forces in his speech. But one official pointed to “his long-standing commitment to combating gender-based violence wherever it occurs, his recent statements about military sexual assault, and the commission that is currently working on addressing sexual assault in the military.”

Coast Guard command headquarters declined comment, referring questions back to the prestigious academy.

“The Coast Guard Investigative Service [CGIS] is conducting an investigation into alleged inappropriate conduct by Master Chief Brett VerHulst, assigned as the Command Master Chief [CMC] at the Coast Guard Academy,” said a statement provided by Cmdr. David G. Milne, a spokesman.

It added, “The Coast Guard cannot provide details at this time in order to preserve the integrity of the investigation and to protect the Coast Guard’s ability to take appropriate final action.”

Investigations are handled by the Coast Guard Investigative Service, or CGIS, which reports to commanders whether a crime or violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice has occurred.

Last year’s “Silenced No More” series spotlighted the years of harassment and retaliation endured by the service’s first woman to pass the elite rescue swimmer tests in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and how complaints from the spouses of service members resulted in perceived retaliation. Another story showed how a service member was pushed out after pushing back on how her sexual assault complaint case was mishandled.

The VerHulst case is being closely watched by service members and Congress.

After several years of controversy, the Coast Guard has made it easier to bring complaints but it remains a process fraught with risk to career.

“I think there is more protection for women now, but those who speak up are still seen as adversaries attacking the institution,” said one person close to the academy with knowledge of the incident. The person insisted on anonymity to discuss non-public details of a matter under investigation.

VerHulst served as a command master chief in Alaska alongside now-Coast Guard Deputy Commandant Michael F. McAllister.

The Coast Guard drew the ire of lawmakers when the commandant, Admiral Karl L. Schultz, refused to testify at a December 2019 hearing on the congressional report called Righting the Ship.

Instead, Schultz sent McAllister, whom he described as being the equivalent of the top human resources officer in the Coast Guard. At that hearing, McAllister said he knew of no systemic problem of sexual harassment and assault in the Coast Guard.

As part of their “Silenced No More” series, McClatchy and the Miami Herald offered a survey and private email to hear from current and past women service members. More than 70 reached out, their stories spanning a period from the 1970s until late last year.

Although a branch of the armed services, the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Defense Department. In its own report, the Office of Inspector General at DHS reached conclusions in 2018 that are very similar to those in the congressional report.

The Righting the Ship hearing also featured Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Young-McLear, a decorated officer who while working at the academy complained about harassment and retaliation. Her treatment at the hands of superiors became part of an inspector general report and the congressional probe.

Reached about the VerHulst incident, she declined to comment on the specifics of his case but in a statement suggested the matter points to a broader problem brought on by improper handling of complaints.

“When there is an absence of military justice, accountability, and transparency, it promotes a bystander culture and institutionalizes a sweeping chilling effect on anyone considering reporting alleged misconduct,” said Young-McLear, who served in three Florida postings —Panama City, Tallahassee and Miami — from 2003 to 2008 as she climbed the ranks.

The lack of accountability, she said, works against the Coast Guard motto of Semper Paratus, Latin for Always Ready.

“A lack of a culture of respect impacts our mission readiness because it erodes trust and the retention of a diverse, ethical, and talented workforce,” Young-McLear said.

The question of how the Coast Guard handles sexual assault and harassment complaints is a subset of a broader national debate over the armed forces and the ability to self-police on sexual harassment and assault.

While not a new issue, it exploded into a national debate because of the Army’s mishandling of harassment complaints from Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillén. The Texas soldier’s complaints were ignored and came to light only after her murder last year. A fellow enlistee about whom she had complained died by suicide as police sought to question him.

A bipartisan group of senators in late April, led by New York Democratic Sen. Kristen Gillibrand and Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, introduced legislation that would remove prosecution of sex crimes from the armed services command and put those cases in the hands of independent military prosecutors.

In the House of Representatives, California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, a longtime advocate for women in the military, is readying similar legislation to professionalize how the armed services gather information and prosecute sex crimes under their separate justice system.

“It’s been a year since the senseless murder of SPC Vanessa Guillén shone the spotlight on the military’s failed and flawed approach to sexual assault and sexual harassment. The need to address these failures, including the need for real transparency and moving cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment for the chain of command of all branches, has never been more urgent. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard leadership has had decades to solve this problem, yet they continue to fail,” she said in a statement to McClatchy and the Herald.

She added, “We must send a message to all service members about the nation’s expectations for their conduct and the culture of the military.”

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