(CNN) — For nearly a decade, US Coast Guard leaders have concealed a critical report that exposed racism, hazing, discrimination and sexual assault across the agency.
The 2015 “Culture of Respect” study, a copy of which was obtained by CNN, documented how employees complained of a “boys will be boys” and “I got through it so can you” culture. Many said they feared they would be ostracized and retaliated against for reporting abuse and that those who did come forward often had their complaints dismissed by supervisors.
Some of the report’s core findings mirrored those of another secret investigation into rapes and sexual assaults at the Coast Guard’s academy. The existence of that probe, which was dubbed Operation Fouled Anchor and completed in 2019, was revealed by CNN earlier this year. That investigation found that serious misconduct had been ignored and, at times, covered up by high-ranking officials, allowing alleged offenders to rise within the ranks of the Coast Guard and other military branches.
Following CNN’s stories on the Fouled Anchor investigation and subsequent Congressional outrage, the Coast Guard’s commandant, Linda Fagan, apologized to cadets and the workforce, and acknowledged that the Coast Guard needed to be more transparent to service members, Congress and the public about such matters.
“Trust and respect thrive in transparency but are shattered by silence,” she wrote.
But under her watch, the Coast Guard continued to keep the report hidden from the public even though she had been asked to release it long before the Fouled Anchor controversy unfolded this summer. And although the Culture of Respect study is more than eight years old, more than a dozen current and recent Coast Guard employees and academy cadets told CNN many of the problems that were identified continue to plague the agency.
In response to questions from CNN this week, a spokesman for Fagan said the commandant plans to make the report public next week as part of her “commitment to transparency,” alongside the findings from a 90-day internal study of sexual assault and harassment within the agency, prompted by the Fouled Anchor reporting.
Coast Guard officials further said in a statement that the Culture of Respect report was not originally intended to be released widely to the workforce, but rather was to be used by senior leaders to inform policy decisions. Officials, however, did not explain why Fagan had not found a way to release the report sooner, particularly since alleged victims or perpetrators were not named in the report.
The document has long been shrouded in secrecy. The copy of the report obtained by CNN states that it was to be stored in “a locked container or area offering sufficient protection against theft, compromise, inadvertent access and unauthorized disclosure.” It was to be distributed only to people on a “need to know basis” and should not be released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, the report stated.
The study, which was conducted internally and included interviews from nearly 300 people from across the organization, highlighted concerns that “blatant sexual harassment of women” and hazing were regularly accepted as just part of the culture. Those accused of discrimination, assault and other misconduct, were allowed to “escape accountability and instead resign, retire, or transfer,” the report found, with some offenders getting rehired by the Coast Guard in civil service positions even after being forced to retire or otherwise leave military service. “We are allowing potentially dangerous members back into society with no punishment,” stated one employee. Others said leaders brushed serious problems ‘under the rug,” and that “senior leaders care about themselves and their careers” instead of “the folks that work for them.”
Authors of the report also noted a common concern among victims of misconduct, who said they believed coming forward would mean putting their careers on the line with little hope of their alleged perpetrators facing serious consequences. “Victims are ostracized, there is a stigma,” one person told interviewers. “No one believes them, no one helps them.”
Even seeking mental health treatment could prove risky, they said, with one interviewee bringing up how the Coast Guard could “involuntarily discharge” employees diagnosed with a mental health condition in the wake of an assault or other traumatic experience on the job.
Examples cited in the report reveal a culture in which service members faced pervasive assault, harassment, sexism, racism and other discrimination. In one case, multiple witnesses saw a supervisor striking a subordinate but nobody came forward to report it because of fear of retaliation.
Improving the Coast Guard’s culture would in some cases require “fundamentally different approaches,” the report concluded. The Coast Guard said this week it had enacted or partially enacted 60 of 129 recommendations, including additional training and additional support services for victims. Nine more are in the works, according to the Coast Guard’s statement agency, and the it “found better ways to achieve the desired result” for 20 others.
The original report had also recommended that a new review be conducted every four years, but that did not happen. The Coast Guard said other studies of the workforce culture have been conducted instead.
Recent government data and records, meanwhile, show that dangerous and discriminatory behavior is still rarely punished at the agency.
Almost half of female service members who reported a case of sexual harassment said the person they complained to took no action, according to a 2021 military survey. Nearly a third said they were punished for bringing up the harassment. Meanwhile, the vast majority of women who allegedly experienced “unwanted sexual contact” said they chose not to report it, often citing concerns about negative consequences or that the process wouldn’t be fair and that nothing would end up coming of their allegations.
Instead, records show how employees found to have committed serious wrongdoing have escaped court martial proceedings or military discharge. As a result, alleged perpetrators avoided criminal records and their retirement benefits were not affected.
A cadet at the Coast Guard Academy accused of sexual assault by two different classmates in the 2019-20 school year, for example, was kicked out of the academy but allowed to enlist in the Coast Guard to pay back the cost of the schooling he had received. Around the same time, a lieutenant commander was allowed to resign in lieu of going to trial for military crimes including sexual assault and drunk and disorderly conduct. Even when another officer was found guilty at a court martial of abusing his seniority to “obtain sexual favors with a subordinate,” he received only a letter of reprimand.
The Coast Guard did not comment on concerns that problems remain at the agency, or the statistics or examples cited by CNN.
Calls for transparency
The limited access to the Culture of Respect has been a topic of contention for years within the workforce and even Congress.
Fagan was asked about the report last year by Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman in a list of questions submitted as part of Congressional testimony. She criticized the agency for not releasing it publicly, saying this was “limiting the workforce and the public’s visibility into the problems that were identified and the recommended solutions.”
Watson Coleman also pushed Fagan, who took the helm of the Coast Guard in June of 2022, to commit to completing a new study and releasing it to the public this time, but Fagan did not directly answer the question – instead citing other recent studies.
More recently, Fagan was asked about releasing the report while attending a faculty meeting at the Coast Guard Academy. She was there following the Fouled Anchor debacle, promising more transparency when a captain who taught at the school called upon her to release the Culture of Respect report, according to multiple people who attended the meeting.
Retired Coast Guard Commander Kimberly Young-McLear, who is a Black lesbian woman, has been perhaps the most vocal in requesting that the report be released.
Her efforts to get the report disseminated stem from her own complaints about “severe and pervasive bullying, harassing, and discriminating behavior” based on her race, gender, sexual orientation and advocacy for equal opportunity in the Coast Guard.
After filing a whistleblower complaint in 2017, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found that she had indeed faced unlawful retaliation. Yet to this day, none of the accused service members from her case have faced any consequences. Young-McLear said she has never received a written apology from Coast Guard leaders despite requests from Congress, and that the years of harassment and lack of accountability have taken a significant mental toll on her.
She said she learned about the existence of the Culture of Respect report while she worked at the Coast Guard’s academy and that she was able to read it when she attended a small summit discussing its findings in 2019. She was outraged when she saw that it exposed the same issues she had reported.
“Had the Coast Guard actually taken the 2015 Culture of Respect report results seriously… then perhaps the years of bullying, harassment, intimidation, and retaliation I endured could have been prevented altogether,” Young-McLear said in Congressional testimony at 2021 hearing on diversity and accountability within the Coast Guard, questioning why the report still hadn’t been made public.
In the last four years, Young-McLear said she has asked for the report to be released more than two dozen times, to various admirals and to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard. A handful of other academy employees have made similar pleas at faculty meetings with the school’s superintendent, she said. “We’ve been saying it until we’ve been blue in the face.”
The Coast Guard’s secrecy and inaction, she says, speak to the very same issues the Culture of Respect report and other examinations have repeatedly raised and show that the agency has failed to hold itself to task in the same way perpetrators have been let off the hook.
“If we don’t hold individuals and institutions accountable,” said Young-McLear, “it is providing a safe haven for abusers and allowing them to rise through the ranks.”
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