written by Panayiota Bertzikis
A man or woman is assaulted in the Coast Guard, they report it, are treated with respect and dignity and have a wealth of information and resources available to them to be able to heal from an assault, their entire command and fellow shipmates are sympathetic, they see their assailant be sent to the brig for life and the survivor can go on and have a successful Coast Guard career. The Coast Guard does after all have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual assaults, right? Well not exactly.
Year after year, shipmate after shipmate the problems are always the same. Survivors are being blamed and punished for a crime done to them. They are losing their careers and seeing their perpetrators go free. They are being called liars or told that they are to blame, yes you read that right-the one who was assaulted are punished not the one that committed the crime! I have been working with sexual assault Coast Guard survivors since 2006 the same year that I too was assaulted by a shipmate. Most of the problems can be fixed only if we work collectively.
Problem: If a sexual assault occurs underway not all ships are equipped with a rape kit or a qualified person to perform a rape kit. A couple of months back a survivor reported a sexual assault on a ship and the HS2 on board picked up the dusty rape kit, read the instructions and told the survivor “I have no idea how to do this”.
Solution: Teaching how to perform a rape kit should be mandatory in HS A-school and being SANE qualified should be a requirement for at least one corpsman on a ship. On a side note let me add that RESTRICTED REPORTING is an option even if you at sea.
Problem: The majority of sexual assault survivors report a history of sexual harassment prior to an assault. Many of them report that not much has been after reporting the harassment. It should be to nobody surprise that a rape more often occurs under a command that tolerates sexual harassment. Now we have a rape survivor that needs to report an assault to the very people that ignored or even contributed to sexual harassment. This often cause a survivor to not report an assault or have a delay reporting.
Solution: Ideally we want everyone in the Coast Guard to take sexual harassment and assault seriously, however not everyone in the Coast Guard is at that point yet. Command that ignore sexual harassment or assault should be held accountable. Right now if a Command was found to ignore rape allegations nothing happens to him (heck, I know cause my Chief is still in after him and my BM1 told me to leave their office and basically to “shut up” about being raped) Perhaps a 24hour hotline manned by SARCs for those who do not feel comfortable reporting it to their command and do not have a SARC at their unit.
Problem: How to keep restricted reporting actually CONFIDENTIAL. One can switch from restricted reporting to unrestricted reporting at anytime, at times they do and most of those times it is involuntarily. We all know that Guardians like to talk, the scuttlebutt and gossip is inevitable. Even small acts such as separating the perpetrator and the survivor, or having the survivor be seen going into a counselor office in the small town that small boat stations usually will make people to ask question and take it among themselves to investigate. In a more severe case everyone was called into for an All Hands in which the XO said, “a rape was reported but the victim chose restricted so we can not tell you who it was but I want to inform you that such behavior won’t be tolerated.” Everyone turned to the 2 women at the unit. (True story)
Solution: Common sense to not talk about your shipmates? I wish it were that easy. Restricted/unrestricted reporting is currently not working the way that the military would like it to be. Suggestions are welcomed on what may work.
Problem: -This one is a fairly easy change and can lead to more prosecution. Currently what CGIS has in place is a survivor is interviewed, the perpetrator is interviewed, and any possible witnesses are interviewed. The report is typed up and usually sent to the CO and to JAGS for review and see if any charged should be filed. Many survivors that requested their report under FOIA found that a lot of information to be purposely left out or mis communicated. Did the S/A not hear the survivor when she said that a knife was put to her throat or did he purposely left it out? Retelling one story is very stressful and difficult and between the cries and what not a lot may have been lost.
Solution: What is being done in many civilian law enforcement agencies to prevent such miscommunication is making a survivor and all who were present in the room (S/As, Victim advocates, a friend or family member) to sign off on the S/As notes that everything that was said was included in the report. That way we won’t have survivors coming forward years later wondering why a vital part of their assault has been left out!
Some other issues that should be addressed:
-Survivors involuntarily separated from service. That should not be happening. Living through a sexual assault and rape is one of the most traumatizing thing that one can experience, fear of losing one job is a very stressful thing putting the two together is just disastrous. 92% of all survivors report being separated from service after reporting an assault-NOT ACCEPTABLE.
-Survivors testing positive for GHB and other ‘date rape drugs’ and being forced out of service under General or OTH discharge. Most people who are assaulted do not report an assault and yes there are times that a person does not even know that they are assaulted if they were given a date rape drug. They wake up disoriented but had no idea what happened the night before. Along with that I can not tell you how many survivors asked me if there is a test that can prove that they were raped. At the present time the rape kit would only be examined with permission from the court for forensic evidence and not by request of a survivor who wants to know if she was raped. (a major policy that needs to be changed)
- Low prosecution rate and those who are found guilty of sexual assault or rape often receive just a slap on the wrist. Early retirement should not be in lieu of jail time.
-Access to anti-viral drugs (HIV Prevention) and ECP (Plan B) for survivors who choose to take them.
This may be minor but can we restrain from using the term “victim” and start using the term “survivor” when speaking about a sexual assault survivor. They are not victims of anything, they are survivors that survived one of the worst crimes that can be done to somebody. The men and women that I worked with are some of the bravest individuals that I have ever met and by no mean should we degrade them by calling them victims.
Remember the only ones that can end sexual assault in the Coast Guard are those wearing the uniform of the United States Coast Guard. Currently one enlisting in the Coast Guard doubles their chances of being sexually assaulted or rape and that is completely unacceptable. Fix those problems then maybe we can start correctly using the term “zero-tolerance”.
As always do remember that regardless if you just been assaulted or been assaulted 20 years ago there is help out there when you are ready and want it.