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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    A Coast Guard Academy graduate’s harassment story

    New London ― When news broke in June that the United States Coast Guard had covered up the results of an internal investigation into decades of sexual misconduct at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, one newly minted graduate had to confront her own disclosure issue.

    Friends urged her to go public with her story, which she’d been reluctant to do.

    It’s a story from a female cadet who experienced bullying and verbal harassment rather than sexual abuse. Having survived it, the 23-year-old has embarked on the five-year Coast Guard service commitment she agreed to fulfill upon graduation, and she’s eager to consign her treatment at the academy to the past. Telling her story might help her achieve that goal, she reasoned.

    The Day granted her anonymity because of her fear of retaliation.

    The harassment she described, which ultimately included attacks on her reputation, including a false allusion to promiscuity on her part, began during her junior year in the fall of 2021, soon after she began dating a member of the academy’s men’s soccer team.

    Right away, two of her boyfriend’s teammates, in particular, had a problem with the relationship and began trying to push her away, she said, targeting her with verbal abuse and “spreading rumors” about her among as many cadets as possible.

    “I’d sit down at a table and one of them would get up and leave,” she said. “They’d talk about me. Personal stuff, that my boyfriend was too good for me. Weird stuff.”

    She began to avoid encounters in hallways, communal meals and other situations. An athlete herself, she left her team that fall, upset and depressed. She would quit altogether early the next season.

    In the fall of her senior year, feeling suicidal at times, she sought professional help. She enrolled in a behavioral health program at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, leaving school for parts of three days a week to participate. Diagnosed with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, she was prescribed mood stabilizers and an antidepressant; medications she still takes.

    The ‘ahoy’ incident

    “All the whispering about me ― there was nothing I could do about it,” the former cadet said. And then came the “ahoy“ incident.

    “It was almost a relief they did something so in the face,” she said, referring to her tormentors. “For them to do it in front of the whole school was so dumb of them.”

    She described an “ahoy” as the academy’s almost daily practice of subjecting a particular cadet ― that day’s designated “duty stander” ― to what is supposed to be innocent ribbing in front of the entire “corps of cadets,” a student body numbering more than 1,000. It takes place during lunch in the wardroom of Chase Hall, the largest building on campus.

    She said she had a bad feeling about the day because her boyfriend, seated with officers at the head table, was to be the target of the “ahoy.” She stayed outside in the hallway, but she heard everything. The two soccer players who had been harassing her took turns at the podium and spoke about her, she said, “mentioning my sex life and trying to shame me.”

    They suggested she was promiscuous, “a whore, a bad person, and how awful our (she and her boyfriend’s) relationship had been,” she said. “Everyone was appalled.”

    David Santos, the academy’s public affairs officer, acknowledged that “ahoys” take place.

    “‘Ahoys’ originated within the cadet corps over the past decade and are the informal practice of directing good-natured jokes toward the senior cadet on duty,” he wrote in an email. “The practice is currently under review by the new Superintendent and Commandant of Cadets to determine whether this practice is in keeping with the Coast Guard’s core values.”

    The former cadet said an officer who witnessed the “ahoy” at which she was mentioned believed it met the criteria for an Anti-Harassment and Hate Incident investigation, and reported it to Cmdr. Aaron Casavant, the assistant commandant of cadets. The ensuing probe focused on the three soccer players, including the former cadet’s boyfriend, and included an interview with the former cadet, who said she described the harassment she’d endured since the fall of 2021.

    She said only the “ahoy” incident itself was considered with discipline in the form of “remediation” assignments meted out to the two soccer players, who were found guilty of harassment, bullying and “conduct unbecoming a cadet.” Her boyfriend, she said, was cited for a lesser offense for failing to intervene.

    When Capt. Arthur Ray, the commandant of cadets, reviewed the matter at a “cadet’s mast,” a courtroom-like proceeding, it appeared the soccer players might not graduate with their classmates, according to the former cadet, who said the “ahoy” that went wrong had become “the elephant in the room at school.”

    With graduation nearing, the soccer players then met with Rear Adm. Bill Kelly, then the academy superintendent, who the former cadet said berated them. But after the families of the two cadets facing harsher discipline retained lawyers, she learned they would be allowed to graduate alongside her on May 17, which they did.

    She felt as if they’d gotten off scot-free.

    Kelly left the academy in late May to become president of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. He was succeeded by Rear Adm. Michael Johnston.

    In July, when CNN reported the Coast Guard’s “Operation Fouled Anchor” investigation had identified scores of incidents of rape and other sexual abuse and harassment at the academy between 1988 and 2006, the former cadet shared an op-ed piece she’d written but never submitted for publication. She’d titled the account of her experiences, “The Coast Guard Fails Their Female Members Once Again.”

    “The academy has to take harassment more seriously,” she said, meaning non-sexual as well as sexual harassment. “Cadets know it’s happening. Officers and the people working there don’t think it’s happening but it is. I didn’t feel protected or that I had a voice during the investigation. No one in senior leadership was looking out for me.”

    Santos, the academy’s public affairs officer, wrote that the academy follows all Coast Guard policies regarding harassing behaviors and is “in the process of revising its policy in accordance with recently promulgated guidance in the Coast Guard’s ‘Harassing Behaviors Prevention, Response and Accountability Instruction.’”

    “Bullying, harassment and hazing are all considered serious infractions of the Cadet Conduct and Discipline System,” he wrote. “All infractions are adjudicated in accordance with Coast Guard and Academy policies on a case-by-case basis.”

    b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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