Hug led to investigation and Coast Guard Academy command master chief being relieved of duties
The investigation into former Coast Guard Academy Command Master Chief Brett VerHulst found that he hugged women and kissed them on the cheek or forehead, leading Superintendent Rear Adm. William Kelly to conclude that the senior enlisted leader at the academy "failed to meet Coast Guard-wide expectations of professionalism regarding engagement with members of the opposite sex," according to documents released this week.
Kelly said none of the women interviewed believed VerHulst intended anything sexual, and they were "consistent in their desire" that VerHulst "not get in trouble due to the shared belief that he was trying to create a 'welcoming, family-type atmosphere' at CGA.'"
The superintendent on April 26 temporarily relieved VerHulst for cause from his duties as command master chief and assigned him to the Coast Guard Research and Development Center, also in New London. The Personnel Service Center on July 9 approved Kelly's request for permanent relief for cause. Kelly didn't take any military justice action, which means that VerHulst is entitled to a military retirement, as he has served for more than 20 years.
The academy previously only had said the Coast Guard Investigative Service was looking into "alleged inappropriate conduct" by VerHulst, and then in July said the probe had found no evidence of sexual assault, sexual harassment or sexual contact.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Day, the Coast Guard released the 17-page CGIS report, with names of interviewees redacted, and emails and memorandums among Coast Guard officials.
The CGIS investigation began April 12 with a third-party report of VerHulst hugging a female cadet in his office and putting his hand on her face, following a briefing about an emotional topic. The investigation expanded to cover other incidents of physical contact, and CGIS conducted interviews over multiple days in mid- to late April.
"I believe that sometimes physical contact is helpful and appropriate when grieving or sympathizing with someone going through hardship," VerHulst said in a later memo.
According to the report, the cadet was upset an investigation of VerHulst was initiated on her behalf, didn't want to hurt his retirement and thought a warning would be appropriate, but ultimately spoke with CGIS. VerHulst joined the Coast Guard in 1991 and already had been planning to retire after 30 years; his retirement date is still scheduled for Sept. 1.
The investigation contained interviews of female cadets, enlisted members and a junior officer, some of whom expressed that they only saw him with women or that he spent more time with female cadets.
Another cadet said VerHulst hugged her at a recent event and in the past, but never touched her anywhere that made her feel uncomfortable.
One woman said VerHulst rubbed her upper back without permission at an event in April, which VerHulst adamantly denied, and she felt very uncomfortable. She felt VerHulst crossed professional boundaries and was oddly casual with her and other women.
Another woman said VerHulst gave her an unwanted hug and kissed her forehead in 2018 or 2019, and that he is "too touchy for my comfort level." She said she made sure to never end up in a room alone with him but also said she had no desire to "ruin his career."
A woman who spoke highly of VerHulst said they were both affectionate people and frequently hugged. She said at an event last year, VerHulst hugged her and kissed her on top of her head in front of a group of cadets. She was comfortable with the physical contact but later told VerHulst that people who witnessed the interaction may have been offended.
A male peer of the command master chief said he told VerHulst last October there was a perception of VerHulst behaving inappropriately toward female Coast Guard members, providing the example of him touching women on their lower backs. VerHulst also recalled this conversation.
In his interview, VerHulst described himself as an "affectionate leader," said he hugged and "pecked" various people on the cheek, and admitted he hadn't seen another member of the senior leadership team hug a cadet.
He agreed to make his statement without talking to a lawyer first or having a lawyer present. He later said that due to his confidence he had done nothing inappropriate, he "naively" didn't realize he should have had representation, and he was "devastated and shell-shocked throughout the entire interview."
Cellphone messages left for VerHulst on Thursday and Friday were not returned.
VerHulst assumed the duties of command master chief at the academy in August 2017, after serving as command master chief of the 17th Coast Guard District in Alaska. In March, he was named as one of three recipients of the Spirit of the Bear Award, which recognizes members of the academy community "who exemplify the very best in mentoring and developing cadets into Leaders of Character."
As part of a response to emailed questions, academy spokesperson Cmdr. Krystyn Pecora said Friday that Kelly informally counseled VerHulst in February 2021 "on an interaction he observed between VerHulst and a cadet mentee that RADM Kelly considered unprofessional, although noted that no violation of Coast Guard policy had occurred. After this discussion RADM Kelly did not observe any additional similar behavior from VerHulst."
Pecora said that "based on reports of misconduct and a subsequent investigation," Kelly "lost confidence" in VerHulst's ability to fulfill the duties and responsibilities of command master chief.
She said Thursday that Kelly was not available for an interview Thursday or Friday.
Academy responds to investigation
Kelly initially emailed the Coast Guard Academy community April 27 saying VerHulst "resigned his duties" as command master chief that morning, effective immediately. The superintendent didn't mention in the email that the day before, he had temporarily relieved VerHulst for cause from his duties as command master chief.
"I take this action because of the reports of misconduct that CGA has received and which are currently under investigation," Kelly wrote in the memo to VerHulst.
In his resignation request to Kelly on April 27, VerHulst wrote, "Due to unforeseen circumstances and the mental health concerns this has created, I can no longer effectively perform the duties of CMC."
That evening, a person whose name has been redacted sent a Coast Guard commandant-approved "holding statement" that included the "alleged inappropriate conduct" language.
On May 3, VerHulst requested to be reinstated as command master chief, saying the "outpouring of support from cadets, faculty, staff, and crew ... has been overwhelming and extremely validating for the type of leader and person I try to be every day." He attached eight character statements but the Coast Guard redacted all in their entirety.
He and his family had been living at the Coast Guard Academy, and Pecora said they officially departed their quarters May 8.
On May 26, Kelly notified VerHulst of his intent to seek permanent relief for cause. The superintendent said he understands VerHulst's statement that he thinks physical contact is appropriate in certain circumstances, especially when people are under stress.
"However, your behavior demonstrates a lack of self-awareness of appropriate boundaries with military personnel of the opposite sex," Kelly wrote. "You cannot assume consent to physical contact, and you should have realized that your actions had the potential to — and did — make some of these women uncomfortable. This is exacerbated by the fact that junior personnel often do not feel at liberty to object to the initiation of physical contact by a senior member of the command."
In his reply, VerHulst said he has "tremendous regret and I am deeply sorry" that some members of the academy community were uncomfortable with some of his interactions with them.
On June 10, Kelly informed Vice Adm. Paul F. Thomas, deputy commandant for mission support, and Rear Adm. Joanna Nunan, deputy for personnel readiness, that as a "by-product of the CMC issue," bystander intervention training would be happening that day.
Thomas replied, "This is a tough one. Subtle signs that are clear in retrospect, but are really only apparent when you add up many little things."
Kelly sent an update July 19 to Master Chief Jason Vanderhaden, the senior enlisted member of the Coast Guard. Vanderhaden replied the next day that he has "no issues with the way ahead although I know CCG feels a little differently. I'll work to bring him around to the reasons why we have to go this route." CCG refers to the commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Karl L. Schultz. Asked about this statement on Friday, the Coast Guard replied that it "supports the command authority exercised by the Coast Guard Academy."
Capt. Rick Wester, assistant superintendent of the academy, concluded there was no sexual harassment but the circumstances described in the CGIS report did meet the Coast Guard's definition of prohibited harassment: "unwelcome conduct that unreasonably interferes with work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment."
Pecora said Friday that bystander intervention training is a two-hour, scenario-based training delivered by a sexual assault response coordinator. She said other trainings are required of all Coast Guard members annually: preventing and addressing workplace harassment, sexual harassment prevention, and Department of Homeland Security no fear and anti-harassment.