'Culture of Cover-Up:' Senators Ratchet Up Pressure on Coast Guard After It Hid Report on Rapes, Sexual Assaults

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Aerial photograph of the parade field at the Coast Guard Academy
Aerial photograph of the parade field on campus at the Coast Guard Academy, New London, Nov. 2, 2023. (Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer Matt Thieme)

Pressure is mounting on the U.S. Coast Guard to hold past perpetrators of sexual assault and leaders who covered up a subsequent investigation at the Coast Guard Academy and elsewhere accountable for their actions.

Senators expressed disgust Tuesday with the service's response to the scandal during congressional testimony by five former and current U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadets on assaults over recent decades and subsequent failures to address the problem. The witnesses pointed blame at leadership, including the past commandant, who seem to have dodged repercussions.

In September, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., opened an inquiry into the academy's response to sexual assaults at the school and failure by top Coast Guard leaders to disclose the results of a six-year investigation into cases of rape and assault at the institution from the 1980s to 2020.

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After hearing the stories of the women who were traumatized by their experiences at the school -- some dating to the late 1970s -- the senators reconfirmed their commitment to ridding the service of what they called a "culture of cover-up" during the hearing.

"It's about a Coast Guard that has abandoned its moral compass and lost its ethical sonar," said Blumenthal, who serves as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Addressing the witnesses, Johnson said their testimony was some of the most powerful he'd heard in 12 years.

"You have done an extraordinary job in a difficult situation, laying out what the facts are and what the problem is, plus what the solution is: It is accountability, it is exposure, it is naming and shaming," said Johnson, the subcommittee's ranking member.

During the hearing, current First Class Cadet Kyra Grace Holmstrup, president of Cadets Against Sexual Assault, described an assault that took place within a month of her arrival at the school. She filed a report against the upperclassman in spite of being told by her friends that it would "ruin his life."

When she went to see a chaplain about the trauma and told him who the perpetrator was, the chaplain responded with, "Oh no, he's such a good guy," she recalled.

"The reporting system continues to re-victimize and causes trauma on its own," Holmstrup said.

Another witness, retired Lt. Melissa McCafferty, said that during her period at the academy, a cadet who was forced out for sexual misconduct later was allowed to enlist in the Coast Guard and is still serving.

"Coast Guard senior leaders have failed to protect us against the worst of all enemies -- ourselves," McCafferty said.

The academy's mishandling and burial of sexual assault reporting came to light in June as the result of extensive investigative reporting by CNN, which found that the service conducted a multi-year probe into the issue, called Operation Fouled Anchor, and never revealed the results.

According to the report, 102 cases of rape or sexual assault at the academy were investigated from 1988 through 2006, with 43 alleged perpetrators and 63 victims.

Subsequent reporting by CNN found that while the Coast Guard had plans to disclose the findings to the Department of Homeland Security and Congress in late 2018, those events never occurred under former Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Karl Schultz or his deputy, Adm. Charles Ray.

As a result of the CNN reports and congressional scrutiny, the service's current commandant, Adm. Linda Fagan, ordered a top-down review of the assaults and the Fouled Anchor investigation.

That review, released last week, found that the service failed to live up to its core values, eroding trust in leaders and causing further psychological harm to victims.

But it stopped short of naming anyone involved or holding them accountable.

When asked to respond to assertions at the hearing over the service's lack of transparency and accountability, Coast Guard officials said they continue to "take steps" toward improvement.

"As evidenced by our own investigations and today's testimony, the Coast Guard failed in its handling of some past sexual assault cases, and it failed again when this information was not shared with Congress. We sincerely apologize for these failures and the harm they caused," the service said in a statement.

Caitlin Maro, a witness who left the academy in 2005 after experiencing extensive sexual harassment and assault, said any investigation that does not hold those at the highest levels accountable falls short.

"[Fagan] should come in here and explain. I think Adm. Schultz should come in here and explain why he left Operation Fouled Anchor in her inbox," Maro said.

Related: Former Coast Guard Academy Professor Resigns from College Amid Investigation Linked to Sexual Harassment Scandal

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