Coast Guardsman Sues Claiming Retaliation for Filing Sex Assault Report at Academy

Commencement for the United States Coast Guard Academy
Covers are displayed on a table during the commencement for the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, on May 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

A former Coast Guard Academy cadet has filed a lawsuit over his dismissal from the school, contending his removal just eight days before commissioning was retaliation for reporting an alleged sexual assault.

Joshua Roh, now a 3rd class boatswain's mate serving in New Hampshire, filed a motion Oct. 1 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., saying that his rights were violated by his Coast Guard chain of command when they failed to support him after the alleged assault and later sought to discredit him.

Moreover, leadership kicked him out of the academy and violated his due process by summarily dismissing his requests for appeal, according to the complaint.

"Josh is a fine young man on whom the Coast Guard turned its back, and it's a disgrace," Roh's Maryland-based attorney, Jeff McFadden, told on Tuesday.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Brittany Panetta, deputy for media relations at Coast Guard Headquarters, declined to comment on the proceedings Tuesday, saying the service does not discuss pending legal matters.

The defendants have 60 days after they receive their formal notifications of the suit to file a response.

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On the night of the alleged incident in April 2019, Roh and a fellow member of the school's swim team went out to dinner and later purchased a bottle of vodka to drink when they returned to the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, according to court documents.

They were joined by a third classmate in Roh's dorm room in Chase Hall and drank the bottle. After all three were intoxicated, the alleged perpetrator left the room but came back later and reportedly sexually assaulted Roh.

Roh immediately told several classmates and was taken to a local hospital for treatment.

The cadet, then in his third year at the school, filed an unrestricted report of the assault -- the type of filing that launches a formal investigation. The alleged perpetrator remained in the classes he shared with Roh and later was assigned with Roh to summer cadre, the group of upperclassmen who help instruct the newest students, the incoming 4th class, known at the school as “swabs.”

Eventually, the perpetrator was dismissed from the school for workplace violence after leaving a note outside another cadet's door that was "written in his blood," according to documents.

Roh, a previously stellar student and cadet, remained at the school but began receiving numerous demerits and punishments for anger issues and perceived rules infractions -- misbehavior that McFadden said was related to post-traumatic stress disorder from the sexual assault, as well as a "classic display of gaslighting" by his seniors.

Among his infractions were instances of yelling, drinking at a social event within a 12-hour window of standing watch -- a duty he said he had not been told he had -- and forgetting to remove an earring while in uniform.

"Rather than recognizing that any such behavioral issues were directly attributable

to the command's abject failure to follow its own sexual assault prevention and response regulations and to treat Cadet Roh's post-traumatic stress, the command turned that failure on its head, blaming Cadet Roh for failing to 'suck it up' and 'get over' his assault," McFadden wrote in court documents.

The Coast Guard and the Coast Guard Academy have struggled in the past year with reports of harassment and bullying in the ranks, including sexual harassment.

In December 2019, the House Committees on Homeland Security and Oversight and Reform released a report following an 18-month investigation into sexual harassment and bullying in the service and at the Coast Guard Academy, finding that leadership failed to conduct thorough and impartial investigations into allegations involving harassment and bullying, and did not take corrective action to address retaliation or hold commanders accountable for deficient and incomplete investigations.

"Anti-harassment and anti-bullying efforts can be effective only if complainants have faith in investigative processes and trust that their complaints will be handled properly," the report noted.

And in April, the command master chief of the Coast Guard Academy, Master Chief Brett VerHulst, was relieved while subsequently resigning from his position -- a move that may have been related to his reputation for getting too close and "huggy" with female cadets, according to an investigation obtained by Navy Times.

The Defense Department has struggled for years to reverse rising reports of sexual assault in the services, with much of the attention given to sexual assault on female service members. In 2018, nearly one in 16 female troops reported having been sexually assaulted within the DoD services during the previous year.

The DoD reported in 2018 -- the most recent year available for comprehensive survey results -- that roughly 13,000 women and 7,500 male service members said they had been sexually assaulted in the military.

The same survey indicated that some who filed reports on their assaults were retaliated against. In 2018, 24 men and 108 women said they had experienced some sort of reprisal after reporting an incident.

The Coast Guard and the academy are not included in the Pentagon's annual report on sexual assault because the service falls under the Department of Homeland Security. But according to the Coast Guard's fiscal 2019 report on sexual assault, the number of incidents reported the year of Roh's alleged assault was 225, down from 248 in fiscal 2018.

Of those, 146 reports were filed by women and 40 were filed by men.

During the same time frame, sexual harassment allegations rose from 57 in fiscal 2018 to 89 in fiscal 2019.

Service members generally can't sue the federal government for monetary damages or injury -- a prohibition set by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as the Feres Doctrine -- but service members can file complaints and request relief from disciplinary actions.

In a highly publicized suit last year, McFadden successfully argued that a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman should not be expelled from the school for tweets that Navy leaders said were inappropriate for a future officer.

After a long legal battle, that student, Chase Standage, graduated from the school this year.

Roh's complaint argues that his treatment violated the federal Administrative Procedure Act because the disciplinary actions taken against him were "arbitrary and capricious."

It also says the treatment violated his right to due process since his appeals were not seriously considered; his right to equal protection because he didn't receive adequate support or treatment as a male victim of sexual assault; and the Whistleblower Protection Act because his private information was shared with persons who then engaged in retaliation, according to the court documents.

The defendants in Roh's case include Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz; Rear Adm. Joanna Nunan, deputy for personnel readiness; Academy Superintendent Rear Adm. William Kelly; Academy Commandant of Cadets Capt. Arthur Ray; and Roh's company officer, Lt. Akaninyene Inyang.

The Coast Guard Academy declined to comment on the case while Inyang did not respond to a request for comment left on his voicemail.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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