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Coast Guard whistleblower reflects on life since testifying at 2019 hearing

The Island-class patrol boat USCGC Maui (WPB 1304) navigates through the Arabian Gulf. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Meleesa Gutierrez/Released)
July 11, 2021

On June 23, more than 18 months after testifying before Congress in a hearing on addressing harassment, bullying and retaliation in the Coast Guard, Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Young-McLear sat with her wife and colleagues from an employee association group to watch Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz testify before Congress in a hearing on achieving diversity, equity and accountability in the service.

In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General found that the Coast Guard didn’t properly investigate Young-McLear’s complaints of harassment and bullying while teaching at the Coast Guard Academy, and that she was retaliated against after reporting them. What followed was an 18-month investigation by two House committees, the findings of which were released the day Young-McLear testified in December 2019.

Last Friday she talked to The Day about what her life has been like since then and what she changes she wants to see made in the Coast Guard.

She said cadets, officers and enlisted personnel have reached out “in various states of hopelessness” about hostile work environments, workplace bullying, sexual assault, discrimination and retaliation. She is grateful that people have trusted her with their information, and feels that she is speaking on behalf of those who don’t want their names publicized out for fear of retaliation.

Young-McLear, 37, left the academy in the summer of 2019 for a detail at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, under DHS. She was originally scheduled to return to the academy this summer but had her detail extended through June 2023.

“Dr. Young-McLear has certainly stood out while on detail at CISA, as she has brought unique talents to our evolving workforce,” then-director of CISA Christopher Krebs wrote to Schultz last year, concluding that it’s “unquestionably essential” to extend her detail two years, in a letter Young-McLear provided to The Day.

He wrote that Young-McLear is “the intellectual powerhouse” behind the development of a strategy to “to strengthen and forge new partnerships designed to systematically address the national cybersecurity workforce shortage, where the Coast Guard’s cyber workforce will also benefit.”

The letter is dated Nov. 16 — the day before former President Donald Trump fired Krebs on Twitter because Krebs disputed claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Young-McLear said it’s “been great working at CISA,” where she is striving to ensure a diverse national cybersecurity workforce.

“Everyone has a lens and an experience, a skillset, and that’s intertwined into who we are,” she said, “and so when we create environments that are either toxic, unlawful, discriminatory, retaliatory, what we are basically doing is we are eroding our own workforce, because now we have people who are not able to fully contribute.”

Young-McLear also recently co-founded the employee association DHS Spectrum, “an antiracist, multicultural, intersectional, and diverse organization that exists to create and promote ‘Healthy to Innovative’ work environments where all employees can thrive.”

She will also be speaking at a virtual event the National Whistleblower Center is holding July 30, on National Whistleblower Day.

Young-McLear holds a PhD in systems engineering but said the Coast Guard “essentially lost me as a resource,” because “they created a toxic and unlawful and retaliatory environment for years, and they have refused to hold a single person accountable.”

Young-McLear said she still interacts with the Coast Guard, primarily through her work in diversity and inclusion, but feels iced out and socially isolated as a whistleblower.

“This is a post-George Floyd environment that we’re operating in, and here I am, as a Black lesbian woman on active duty who was harmed for years, and they’re not creating any type of platform for me to be able to share my story,” she said. She did note that some pockets across the Coast Guard have been receptive, but not at the top.

Old questions resurface in new hearing

Young-McLear said she made three requests of the Coast Guard that have gone unmet: a formal written apology, accountability, and meeting with the commandant to discuss ways to learn from her case. She thinks that when the Coast Guard says bullying, harassment, discrimination, retaliation and sexual assault won’t be tolerated, this is “lip service” if there’s no justice and accountability.

In the hearing with Schultz last month, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., asked if the commandant would be willing to issue a written apology to Young-McLear. Schultz replied, in part, that issuing a written apology is “a tricky business in the service.”

Asked why a written apology is important to her, Young-McLear said, “If you’re not even willing to do a basic and fundamental act of a formal written apology, then how are we ever going to get to a place where we’re holding people accountable?”

According to the 2018 OIG report, instead of conducting a full administrative investigation of Young-McLear’s allegations after a preliminary inquiry, Coast Guard Academy officials ordered a general climate and culture investigation, “which was a relatively superficial effort and did not address Complainant’s particular situation.”

Young-McLear said the climate investigation was “incredibly demeaning and humiliating” because she worked in a small department and people could easily guess who filed the complaint.

Schultz acknowledged in the congressional hearing last month that that climate investigation “was not an appropriate tool,” and he said subsequent changes to policies say not to use a climate survey in such cases. He also acknowledged that Young-McLear was a victim of harassment and bullying.

Watson Coleman asked Schultz about consequences to people who perpetrated harassment and discrimination or allowed it and didn’t do anything. Noting that an investigator didn’t recommend disciplinary action, Schultz said, “There was not sufficient grounds for me to take disciplinary action or administrative action, so what I focused on was corrective action.”

Young-McLear believes the investigator had a conflict of interest because she knew Young-McLear’s supervisor.

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(c) 2021 The Day

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