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House committee probes Coast Guard commandant on diversity, accountability

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz during USS Quentin Walsh (DDG 132) naming ceremony June 6, 2019, in Normandy, France. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jetta Disco)
June 24, 2021

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security on Wednesday in a hearing with two divergent paths, as Democratic representatives focused on diversity, equity and accountability while Republicans asked about threats from China and Russia, drug interdiction and issues in their own states.

It was part of a two-and-a-half-hour virtual hearing the committee held called “Building the Coast Guard America Needs: Achieving Diversity, Equity, and Accountability Within the Service.”

This came more than a year after a committee hearing on addressing harassment, bullying and retaliation in the Coast Guard, in which Schultz was invited but Vice Adm. Michael McAllister testified instead. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General had found that Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Young-McLear was retaliated against after reporting bullying and harassment. Young-McLear testified at the 2019 hearing and submitted a written statement this week.

Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in his opening statement Wednesday, “Today’s hearing is part of this committee’s long-running efforts to help the Coast Guard develop a diverse, inclusive environment free from harassment, bullying, assault and retaliation.”

Thompson said he has long had concerns about the lack of the diversity in the Coast Guard, where 5.6% of active-duty members identify as Black, compared to 14% of the U.S. population.

He also raised concerns about reports of whistleblower retaliation, problems with how the Coast Guard Academy investigated allegations of race-based harassment and sexual assault. A report the Coast Guard submitted to Congress last week said that reported allegations of sexual assault increased last fiscal year compared to the one before.

Schultz said in his opening remarks, “I want to assure the committee that I am listening, that your Coast Guard is listening, and that we have and continue to take decisive action.”

He highlighted the implementation of “change agents” who “conduct diversity and inclusion training, coaching and support for the total workforce.” He said there will be 125 people trained by the end of the summer.

Schultz also noted the Coast Guard released a Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan last summer, updated anti-harassment policies, created an app to better connect mentors and mentees, and has four new recruiters targeting minority officer recruiting.

Asked about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s support of removing prosecution of sexual assaults from the military chain of command, Schultz said he thinks “there’s a potential benefit” to referring things to an outside body and he’s open to change, but “keeping the commander in the decision-making process is absolutely essential.”

Coast Guard culture

Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., asked if Schultz believes there’s a culture “of avoiding saying anything negative about Coast Guard at the risk of facing professional consequence.” The commandant said no but some probably hold that perception and it may be their reality.

Young-McLear said in her written statement, “We need real, systemic change to address a culture that severely lags behind our public facing brand.” She said since testifying in 2019, people have contacted her seeking guidance on cases of sexual assault, bullying, harassment, discrimination and retaliation, and “their cases are not isolated.”

She pointed to a 2015 report on improving the Coast Guard’s culture of respect, which revealed 41 gaps in accountability, leadership, data/information, policy, communications and training. One recommendation was to conduct a similar analysis every 3.5 to 4 years, but one has not been completed since.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., asked if Schultz will undergo a new report. The commandant replied that he first wants to see the results of another RAND Corporation study, which he anticipates receiving this summer, and he’s hesitant to make a commitment.

Young-McLear also noted that Schultz denied her requests for a written apology and that nobody has been held accountable for the retaliation against her.

In addition to Young-McLear, the New London NAACP submitted a statement from President Jean Jordan and Vice President Tamara Lanier. They applauded local efforts at the Coast Guard Academy “to build a more diverse and inclusive institution” but said impactful leadership flows from the top down, and they are “not at this point prepared to say that Admiral Schultz demonstrates the capacity to reimagine and reinforce a more equitable Academy.” They said requests to meet with him have gone unanswered.

Republicans focus on other issues

Clay Higgins, R-La., said he understands the importance of diversity but “there are more pressing issues this committee must address,” such as the crisis at the border, drug smuggling, human trafficking, cyber security attacks and disaster preparedness.

“The safety of our nation is at stake,” he said. “If immediate threats that we face take a back seat to non-life-threatening topics, this committee is not focused on homeland security; it’s focused on identity politics that serve as an evasion of responsibility.”

Rep. Nanette Barragan, D-Calif., asked Schultz if he agrees that sexual harassment “jeopardizes readiness and mission accomplishment,” to which he responded, “1,000%, yes.”

Ranking Member Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., and Rep. Michael Guest, R-Miss., asked about countering challenges in the Arctic, where Schultz said the Coast Guard doesn’t have enough presence. But he said the good news is this is a “bipartisan, bicameral issue on Capitol Hill.” He said the Coast Guard hasn’t built a heavy icebreaker in more than 45 years but probably needs four to six of them.

Republican representatives also asked about China and the Indo-Pacific region, and Schultz said the Coast Guard is increasingly part of the conversation about how to temper increased aggression from China.

He said he will be commissioning new patrol boats in Guam in the coming weeks, and that he put a new Coast Guard captain on the Indo-Pacific staff. Schultz also said the Coast Guard has transferred former cutters to Vietnam, Sri Lanka and other partner nations.

Asked about drug issues, Schultz said on an annual basis, the Coast Guard inderdicts about 440,000 pounds of illicit narcotics headed for American streets, and that drug issues feed the instability in some parts of Central America.

Other Republican representatives asked about issues in their states, such as a $55 million project at Training Center Cape May and about operational challenges in the Great Lakes region.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle asked Schultz what Congress could do to help the Coast Guard, and a lot of the commandant’s answers came down to having an increased budget.

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