Why aren’t you talking with your Shipmates about sexual assault?

WARNING: This blog post contains explicit language, which may include profanity, references to violence, sexual assault, drug and/or alcohol abuse, and graphic depictions of violent or sexual behavior, which readers may find offensive or disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

U.S. Coast Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program logo. U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelly Parker.

Written by Cmdr. Chris O’Neil, Public Affairs Officer, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Military Campaign Office.

We have all received the message: Create a culture intolerant of sexual assault and eliminate sexual assault from our Coast Guard. We’ve read SITREPs, ALCOASTs and other blog posts. We participated in unit events during sexual assault awareness month. We’ve completed mandatory training and some 4,500 Coast Guardsmen have also completed the Coast Guard’s award-winning Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Workshop. We’ve seen media coverage about sexual assault in the military and have listened to Congressional debate over the military justice system’s handling of sexual assault. Despite all this communication, we know, as an organization, we still aren’t having the kind of discussions and open dialogue that will result in change.

There are many reasons why we don’t openly and routinely talk about sexual assault in the military. Societal norms make us uncomfortable when discussing human sexuality and organizational culture makes us uncomfortable when talking about the crimes committed by those in our ranks. The generational, occupational and rank differences within our workforce pose potential barriers to effective communication.

Another obstacle we must overcome is the lack of awareness, or acceptance, that the crime of sexual assault is committed by Coast Guardsmen, against Coast Guardsmen. It’s a concept that can be difficult to grasp if you and the people around you adhere to our core values and work in an environment where shipmates are respected as they should be. Your perception is your reality. We need to develop a shared perception, a common understanding of the breadth and severity of sexual assault in the military, what’s being done about it and what each of us needs to do.

This blog post, and those that will follow in a series, is a means by which we can begin to shape our shared perception, our shared understanding of the severity of the problem, a shared reality of what must be done to eliminate this behavior from our midst. This blog post is written to directly, frankly, and intrusively inform its readers of the breadth and scope of sexual assault in the Coast Guard – your Coast Guard, our Coast Guard, America’s Coast Guard. The survivors of the assaults detailed in the series were contacted prior to publication.

The cases summarized in this series are real, are ugly, and are tragic. The only greater tragedy is if we fail to talk about them, if we fail to learn from them, if we as a Service fail to change.

Our series begins with the two case summaries. The facts are derived directly from records of trial by court-martial, approved by a military judge. These events all happened in your Coast Guard.

A high-endurance cutter’s crew was enjoying a foreign port call. A female non-rate in the deck department aboard the cutter joined many other crewmembers, including a married petty officer for whom she worked, at an all inclusive resort. Staying in separate rooms, neither with a roommate, both the petty officer and the underage non-rate drank excessively throughout the day and night, but did not socialize together.

The non-rate consumed tequila in the morning and, by about 5 p.m., experienced an alcohol-induced blackout, remembering only certain parts of the evening.

Meanwhile, another shipmate of the petty officer noted that he was very drunk and advised him to return to his room, advice the petty officer declined to heed. At some later point in the evening, he and the non-rate’s paths crossed, and he took her back to his hotel room.

One of his shipmates noticed the petty officer and non-rate walking into the room together but did not intervene, despite knowing the petty officer was married.

The non-rate could not remember how she got to the room and she did not remember consenting to any sexual activity. She said she awoke from her blackout while she was in the petty officer’s room as he was penetrating her. When she realized that he was inside of her, she told him to stop and tried to physically push him off her. She said he then looked down at her and laughed but did not stop.

She then started screaming and trying to push him off, but he outweighed her and she could not move him. At one point during the assault, he stated, “Shut up you slut. You like it.” He did not stop despite her pleas. She said that she then blacked out again. She awoke later to the sound of the petty officer showering in the room and she left.

She reported the assault to a shipmate several months later, who in accordance with policy reported it to the command. Following an investigation, the petty officer was charged with sexual assault, tried by a general court-martial and was found guilty of rape, making a false official statement and using indecent language, and was sentenced to confinement in a naval brig, a punitive discharge and was required to register as a sex offender.

In another case, two non-rates, a woman and a man, assigned to a shore unit, began a night of drinking at a local bar with other Coast Guard members whom the woman considered friends. The woman drank excessively that night, falling off her bar stool at one point and attracting concern from the bartender about the level of her intoxication.

While her shipmates continued to party at the bar, the male non-rate assisted the female non-rate to the bathroom because she needed help walking. They both entered the bathroom and then began to have sexual intercourse on the bathroom floor.

Still concerned for her welfare, the bartender directed one of her female shipmates to check on her, which she did. She discovered the two having sex on the floor and made them stop. They then returned to the bar.

A short time later the female non-rate and her friends decided to walk home; they were accompanied by the male non-rate. While her friends knew she was very intoxicated, they did not intervene when the pair stopped to kiss on the way home, and did not ask the male to leave her alone.

Arriving at her apartment, her friends stayed outside to smoke, while she went into a stairwell with the male non-rate. After a few moments, the friends heard noises in the stairwell and entered to find the woman and man with their pants down, lying on the stairs. The man was on top of her, and the friends described her body as “limp.” The friends managed to get her to her feet and to her apartment door. She was so intoxicated her friends had to unlock and open the door for her.

She later reported that she had been sexually assaulted, stating that she was blacked out, did not remember much of the night, and did not remember consenting to sex. The male non-rate claimed that the sex was consensual.

Following an investigation, he was charged with sexual assault and was tried by general court-martial. After 15 hours of deliberation, the accused was acquitted of all charges.

So what is to be learned from these assaults?

First, it is fairly obvious that excessive consumption of alcohol was a contributing factor in each case. Moreover, while the law states that a person cannot give consent to sexual activity when they are, for whatever reason, unable to appraise the nature of the sexual conduct or unable to decline participation in the sexual activity. The failure to consume alcohol in a responsible, moderate manner clearly resulted in lowered inhibitions and poor judgment by all involved.

In the first case, the survivor was incapable of providing consent due to her level of impairment. In the second case, members of the jury either believed the survivor was in fact capable of consenting, or, that the assailant was reasonably mistaken as to whether she could consent. But why did these incidents ever occur in the first place?

There are other failures here that offer lessons learned. There were opportunities for others to step in, speak up and act decisively to prevent these incidents.

In both cases there were plenty of bystanders, any one of whom could have intervened to prevent: (a) the excessive alcohol consumption, or (b) the situations (including isolation) that left one or more of their shipmates vulnerable. As much as most readers may be thinking bystanders should have taken better care of the women in these cases, we should also be thinking the bystanders in these cases should have done more to either disrupt the men’s predatory behavior, or, recognized the men were also placing themselves in a vulnerable or compromising position. In the second case, even the bartender exhibited more concern for the woman than did any of her associates. Bottom line, the shipmates of the women and men in these cases failed to intervene, failed to take action and the results were disastrous.

“Consider how you would feel if on a search and rescue case you failed to take action when you could have and, as a result, someone died. Now consider how you would feel if your son or daughter or brother or sister was the victim in the cases you just read about, and none of their friends or shipmates took action to prevent the assault,” said Shawn Wren, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program manager for the Coast Guard. “We must remember that all victims are someone’s sister or daughter, brother or son. As a service, we need to know that sexual assault is preventable when bystanders intervene. You can safely make a difference by intervening in a potential sexual assault by distracting or redirecting the potential offender or working as a team with other bystanders to separate someone exhibiting predatory behavior from a person who appears vulnerable. You can help prevent sexual assault by creating a culture of mutual respect at your unit and by engaging the command.”

As Coast Guardsmen, we are asked to have the courage to go into harm’s way to save lives, defend our nation and defend our way of life. We need to exhibit that same courage in addressing sexual assault. It takes courage to say, “That’s enough booze for one night,” or, “I think you both need some help getting home, let me see you there safely.” It takes courage to step in and tell a shipmate what they are doing is wrong and it’s time to back off. It takes courage to be the leader your shipmates need and deserve. It’s time for a gut check, do you have that courage?

If you have been, or think you may have been, sexually assaulted, contact your sexual assault response coordinator, or call the Safe Helpline at 1-877-995-5247. Information about reporting options and resources for survivors of sexual assault can be found on the U.S. Coast Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program website.

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