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    Thursday, August 11, 2022

    Coast Guard took correct action when boundaries were crossed

    No one can know what motivated former Coast Guard Academy Command Master Chief Brett VerHulst’s actions, but they were clearly inappropriate and Coast Guard leadership made the right call in investigating them and acting.

    Back in April, Superintendent Rear Adm. William Kelly relieved VerHulst of his academy duties and reassigned him. After that investigation, the Personnel Service Center on July 9 approved Kelly's request for permanent relief for cause — meaning removal. But no actions were taken against VerHulst in the military justice system, meaning he is entitled to his military retirement after serving more than 20 years.

    That outcome fits the situation.

    Investigators interviewed female cadets, enlisted members and a junior officer. Day Staff Writer Erica Moser obtained the resulting report through a Freedom of Information Act request.

    What investigators heard were repeated stories of the master chief hugging female cadets, sometimes placing a kiss on a forehead or cheek. Reactions to the conduct varied from a cadet who was not bothered to another who felt very uncomfortable — with a range of responses in between. No one said they had any indication VerHulst was acting with sexual intent.

    But a male peer testified that he had warned the master chief that there was a perception he was stepping over lines and acting inappropriately toward female Coast Guard members.

    Someone acting in a superior position must be more prudent and circumspect about his or her conduct. The actions described — a peck on the head, a hand on the back, unwanted hugs — do not meet the standards of military conduct. And these cadets were in no position to tell a superior that his actions made them uncomfortable.

    Are the lines always clear? No. The goal should not be to make our workplaces devoid of all physical contact. Sometimes someone facing a crisis, or getting good news, can use a hug and welcomes it. But it should not be a frequent and casual part of any workplace, particularly if repeatedly initiated by someone in a position of greater power and rank.

    “Your behavior demonstrates a lack of self-awareness of appropriate boundaries with military personnel of the opposite sex," Kelly wrote to the master chief, aptly summing up the situation.

    That was a painful lesson for VerHulst, but one that others can learn from.

    The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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