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Coast Guard under pressure from Congress to improve its handling of sex crimes

The Coast Guard Academy Class of 1972 attends the Coast Guard Academy Homecoming in New London, CT, Oct. 14, 2022.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Giles / U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters
The Coast Guard Academy Class of 1972 attends the Coast Guard Academy Homecoming in New London, CT, Oct. 14, 2022.

Congress has overhauled the military justice system to better protect victims of sex crimes by transferring key decision-making authorities outside the military chain of command. But the reforms don’t apply as evenly to the Coast Guard.

The congressionally-mandated changes shift prosecutorial authority for sexual assault cases and other serious offenses away from military commanders to trained prosecutors. Other key changes include the creation of sentencing guidelines and certain safeguards for the rights of victims and the accused. The Pentagon is in the process of establishing new special trial counsel offices across the service branches to take over prosecution decisions by the end of 2023.

The changes were enshrined in the 2022 defense spending bill, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which outlines the role of the armed forces and the Defense Department.

Since the U.S. Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security, the Title 10 reform — which establishes dedicated special trial counsel offices — doesn't specifically cover the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard has stated that it plans to create a similar system.

Activists and sexual assault survivors are now urging Congress and the Department of Homeland Security to make sure the protective policies are put into place.

“The recent strides in military justice reform have been the result of decades of work to ensure the safety of our service women and maintain the readiness of our military. Although the Coast Guard does not usually fall under the Department of Defense, our sisters in arms should not be left behind as we improve policy and the military justice system within the DoD,” Elisa Cardnell, CEO of Service Women’s Action Network, said in a statement.

Over the summer, a CNN report found that the Coast Guard failed to disclose to Congress an internal investigation into dozens of sexual assaults at the Coast Guard Academy that had been reported but not properly investigated. The Coast Guard is under pressure from Congress to hold sexual assailants accountable - as well as leaders who covered up sex crimes at the Coast Guard Academy.

During a hearing Tuesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) criticized the service’s culture.

“It is about a Coast Guard that has lost its way in doing justice for women who are victims and survivors of sexual assault,” he said. “It is about a Coast Guard that has abandoned its moral compass and lost its ethical sonar.”

Senators heard testimony from several victims who have attended the Coast Guard Academy, including Cadet Kyra Grace Holmstrup, who now serves as the president of Cadets Against Sexual Assault. Holmstrup was assaulted within a month of starting school - and reported the crime despite warnings from friends that her action would ruin her assailant’s life. When Holmstrup approached a chaplain to begin working through her trauma, he told her,”Oh no, he's such a good guy," she remembered.

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

Retired Air Force Col. Lory Fenner, SWAN’s federal policy director, told the subcommittee that the victims’ testimony showed the high stakes of military justice reform.

“This is not about esoteric policy and legislation,” she said. “It is about real people, people who we care about, and who are the foundation of the mission of safety and national security.”

The Military Desk at Texas Public Radio is made possible in part by North Park Lincoln and Rise Recovery.

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.