By Elisha Morrow
(Some names are not disclosed for safety reasons.)
“These recruits are entrusted to my care. I will train them to the best of my ability. I will develop them into smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Coast Guard men and women. I will demand of them, and demonstrate by my own example, the highest standards of personal conduct, morality, and professional skill.”
- United States Coast Guard Company Commander Oath
The hardest truth I still face – I had the duty to speak and I was silent. As a result, one of my shipmates was raped and two others were subjected to extreme sexual harassment and verbal abuse. Now that I have made that confession, I can set about the task of telling our story. It’s not one that can be told briefly, so if you are reading this I hope you will forgive its length. I have condensed it as much as possible.
It was Memorial Day, 2009, and it was time to go. Cape May was waiting on the men and women of the company. Waiting to make them into the protectors of the coasts and waters of the United States of America. Waiting to make them Guardians.
Petty Officer “R” was waiting too. Waiting to change the lives of two women in that company and forever change their outlook on not only the Coast Guard, but also life in general. I was one of those women.
Arriving at the Military Entrance & Processing Station (MEPS) on Memorial Day, Monday, I experienced the usual jitters and nerves that any recruit experiences. I knew it was going to be a wild few weeks, but I was confident that I would handle it. The following day, I flew to Philadelphia and met up with my future shipmates at the airport. From there we took the nearly two hour bus ride to Cape May. We were greeted by the usual chaos a newly arrived recruit meets and began the process of being stripped of our old civilian selves and broken down. It was there I met ”T.” Both blonde haired and 5’3, we probably could have passed for sisters. Sisters were quickly what we became, and we relied heavily on each other for support. She was a few years older than me and I found myself thinking of her as a big sister figure.
We remained in “indoc” (your initial few days in bootcamp) until Friday, when we were introduced to our Company Commanders (or CC’s, as they are called). It was then we were first met Petty Officer “R,” who stood in front of our company and took the Company Commander Oath, swearing to lead us by his example.
Over the weekend, he went about the task of assigning duties to specific recruits and asking for volunteers. I kept volunteering, and he kept passing me over. Finally, he looked at me and said, “Stop volunteering – I have a special job for you. We’ll talk later.”He later privately pulled me into his office and explained the details of my “job”. Nightly, after everyone else had gone to bed, I was to clean his office. Continuing, he told me with this job came some “perks.” I would be allowed to listen to his I Pod. I would be allowed to be his “buddy” and did not need to maintain military bearing, but only when no one else was looking. It was shortly after we had this discussion that he taught our sexual harassment class, telling our company, ‘If anyone ever messes with you, come to me. Nobody messes with my recruits!”
The first night of my duties, I was cleaning his bathroom when he walked in and asked me, “What’s your boyfriend think about you being here?” Not thinking much of it, I answered and he started making small talk with me, telling me to ask him three questions about himself. I would later find out that this was his way of getting the conversation flowing with his victims and of getting information that he would later try to manipulate us with.
As the days of boot camp continued, so did my nights of cleaning after my shipmates were in their racks for the night. After my first few evenings alone with Petty Officer “R,” I began to realize that there was something horribly wrong. The first instance was when I was cleaning his shower and accidentally turned the nozzle on, getting water on my shirt. Seeing what happened, he smirked and said “I wonder what everyone would say if they knew you were all wet in the lead company commander’s shower?” I was shocked and horrified that he seemed to be making such a blatant sexual innuendo, and I tried convincing myself that I was just taking it the wrong way, even blaming myself for being so careless with the shower. After all, he was my company commander. He wasn’t going to cross any lines. If he had said something out of line, surely it must have been my fault in some way. I was just being paranoid, that was all. It didn’t take long to find out I was wrong.
Things seemed to quickly spiral out of control from that point. He had begun to question me about my relationship with my boyfriend and asking questions about the relationship status of the other females in my company. He started grilling me on what we were talking about in the shower, wanting to know “Which women are saying that the lead company commander is hot? Who’s whispering about me?” I would tell him we didn’t talk about stuff like that, but he would persist, acting like I was lying to him when I refused to say that someone had a crush on him. I was at a total loss and didn’t know what to do. I confided in my shipmates, who were as unsure of how to handle the situation as I was.
Things only got worse. I would clean his office until I was released (you didn’t do anything until you were told). My nights got later and later, with me cleaning every square inch of an already clean office every single night. He would often keep me in there over an hour, cleaning a space that barely had room for a desk and other small items and a bathroom. A space that began to feel smaller and smaller as he got bolder with his sexual innuendos and proximity of space between us. He started finding excuses to walk up and stop behind me and reach around me to retrieve an item, just shy of having his body against mine. He would stop to talk to me in the bathroom, standing in front of the exits and cornering me. I felt claustrophobia that I am ill equipped to explain.
As if the abuse I was suffering wasn’t enough, I soon saw my shipmate, the friend I considered my sister a target. “T” found herself dragged into the nightmare I had been living for the last several weeks. Taken into an office that did not belong to PO “R” and was not even occupied, she was instructed to clean. Like a broken record, he told her to ask him three questions and take her hair down. She was told to get on her hands and knees and scrub the floor while he sat in a chair and watched. Pointing to a spot on the floor between his legs (which he had thrown open), he told her she had missed a spot and instructed her to scrub it. Over the duration of boot camp, he had her clean unoccupied offices on several other instances, always being present, always being abusive.
I can’t explain the feeling you feel when you see someone you love going through the same thing you have been through.I felt so guilty, thinking maybe if I had just given him the attention he wanted, he would have left her alone. I felt relieved that I had someone to confide in who understood how afraid I was. I felt guilty that I felt relieved. I was so confused. As a recruit, you are already in such a compromised and fragile mental state; the nightly fear of being raped for eight weeks was too much to bear. I started to try to think of ways to escape the base without getting caught. At one point, I actually considered faking a suicide attempt just because I knew they would take me out of the company and away from him if I did. It was totally illogical, but that is what fear does to you. It drives you to consider options you previously would have never even considered.
In spite of all this, we persevered with the support of each other and pushed through our eight weeks, thinking we could just go on to our first units and forget all about him. For awhile, we were right. I went to a Search and Rescue station on the Great Lakes and “T” went to the Cutter Aspen in San Francisco. We were busy, working hard, and I was in the process of planning my wedding. Little did we know, he was just getting started with terrorizing women. We had just been a practice run for the abuse of power he would eventually inflict.
Down the Road
Another Company. Another 5’3” girl hand selected by Petty Officer “R” for the job of “house mouse,” as the cleaning duties were called. But something was different this time, I believe, emboldened by the fact that he hadn’t been caught or “told on” for his actions with ”T” and me, he felt that he was untouchable and took things to a new extreme. This shipmate, younger than “T” and me, had been going through boot camp and found herself in a real live horror movie. I obviously wasn’t there with her, but I will do my best to relay her story as best I can. In order to protect her, I have left her name and her company out of this story.
Things started out as they had with “T” and me, with his stock questions about boyfriends and personal lives. It escalated just as it had with us – but it didn’t stop where it had with us. This young recruit found herself being asked her sexual preferences, if she was interested in other women, if she masturbated (because, as he told her, he had earlier.), and a series of other questions. He soon began exposing himself to her, insisting she look. And finally, he asked if she was on birth control. At a loss, she asked him why he wanted to know. The following day she found out. Telling her that his wife would no longer sleep with him, he gave her a direct order to remove her shorts. He then proceeded to assault her on that occasion and several occasions after. As was the case with us, she was terrified of what would happen if she fought back. She didn’t know if he would hurt her more if she did. She didn’t know if he would turn around and have her kicked out of the company. She just didn’t know. So she, like us, stayed silent and carried on through her eight weeks at Cape May. Even after all this, he wasn’t finished with his reign of terror.
Another Company. Another 5’3” blonde. Like a broken record, he continued with asking personal questions and using it to manipulate the mind of his victims. He continued with his advances. This time, however, he left the harassment at a verbal level and did not continue onto a physical assault as he had with the previous girl. I couldn’t tell you what stopped him, but my personal thought is that when she had gone into boot camp, she, like us, had been a couple of years older than your average recruit (and his previous victim) and had been fearful that he would get caught. I just know that I thank God every day he didn’t put his hands on this woman, though the emotional scars are so deep that they still sting often.
I never truly understood the meaning of the word hopeless until I went to Cape May. Some may judge me based on the fact that I didn’t come forward with my story sooner. I completely understand that, but I will say when you are in that place, it’s harder than you might imagine. When you are in a world where you have it drilled into your head that everyone is out to get you, it’s not quite so simple. When you see the chaplain and the person you fear harm from chatting and being friendly, there’s hopelessness. When you are told that dialing 9-1-1 rings you into the base fire department, where he no doubt has friends, there’s hopelessness. When your aggressor teaches your sexual harassment class and tells you, “if you ever gives you trouble, come to me,” there’s hopelessness.
In the world of Coast Guard boot camp, there was no safety net. No Hail Mary. No way to know that if you spoke up, it was going to be all right. No way to know the person you dare to tell isn’t going to be his golf buddy, or his wife’s best friend. Most people give up everything to join the military. I myself sold all almost all of my earthly possessions, gave up my job, and completely hit the reset button on my life. My fellow survivors have similar stories. Not making it out of Cape May was simply not an option, and when you are out the last thing you want to do is revisit the experience by coming forward. Sometimes courage is slow to build – but we got there.
Taking a Stand
In 2010, I had honorably gotten out of the Coast Guard and was trying to move on with my civilian life. That’s when I received the call from “T” that stopped my heart. “You’re not going to believe this – I met a little blonde girl at my new unit today. Can you guess what she told me?” Of course I knew, and I immediately felt my heart drop. As it turns out, “T” had met the woman at her unit and asked the typical questions – what company were you in? who were your Company Commanders? – common for all junior enlisted Coasties. The conversation quickly brought forth details that were all too familiar. We were not the only ones. After talking at length with ”T,” we decided it was time to take a stand. I would make a call to CGIS and report what had happened. I did so, while “T” and the other woman reported to their local office. It was a lengthy process and it took a great deal of time to finally meet with investigators in person.
As the investigators found out, the three of us were not his only victims, and the year-long investigation brought forth the details of the rape that had occurred. However, the Convening Authority opted not to pursue a rape charge, stating that [it was] because she had not feared death and had removed her own clothing (although under direct order and in fear of retribution), but rather charged him with cruelty, adultery, and disobedience of an order, but rather charged him with cruelty, adultery, and disobedience of an order. Now Chief “R” (who had picked up rank since our experience with him), agreed to take a plea deal under a Special Court Martial and pled guilty to all charges on September 26th. A military judge sentenced him to a maximum allowable 12 months confinement in military prison and a bad conduct discharge. While we were elated that the judge had came down on him with the maximum punishment, it was bitterly disappointing to see that he was not charged with the most heinous crime that he had committed – rape.
I can’t even to begin to share with you the feelings of guilt you have when you know that someone was hurt because you didn’t do the right thing. There is no fixing it. No re-do. I fully accept my part in my lack of standing up sooner than I did and for that I am truly sorry beyond words. The only thing I can do is take up the torch of the fight to bring military justice to our survivors of crimes such as these and see that Article 120 of the UCMJ is revised to state that any sexual activity that occurs under direct order or with a superior in a boot camp setting is considered rape. And that is just what I and my fellow victims are doing. We must fix the broken way in which our military members are treated in cases that involve sexual assault. When you are a member of the military, you completely give your voice over to the government, and are totally at their mercy to take care of you and ensure that justice is received.
What I saw instead was a military that let a man who had clearly assaulted a subordinate off with a much lesser charge than was deserved. A Coast Guard that allowed the accused to stay on base at a training facility full of junior enlisted personnel, stand watch as the senior petty officer in the base bar where he had direct access to junior members who were intoxicated, and co-chair the base morale committee. I fail to see how this is possible.
I wish I had a better way to conclude my story than this, but it’s hard to conclude something when you feel that you are just at the beginning, It’s a long fight ahead of us, one I know will be difficult to bear at times, but one that I feel I must fight. So, instead of closing, I suppose for now I should say to be continued…