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Opinion: The long afterlife of the Tailhook scandal

Opinion by K. Denise Rucker Krepp

(CNN) — My family’s military service goes back generations, so when the time came for me to pursue a career, it was only natural for me to continue the tradition.

I held the belief that the military I would be joining — long a bastion of male privilege — was a changing institution, one welcoming to young women like me eager to serve the country. I signed up for the Coast Guard shortly after graduating from law school.

My idealism was easily understandable, but I could not have been more mistaken.

I was still in college when news started trickling out about the horrifying mass sexual assault in 1991 by military officers attending the three-day convention of the Tailhook Association. It was shocking to think that they would sexually violate scores of their fellow service members.

Tailhook was a watershed moment that demanded accountability. And indeed, in the aftermath of those horrific assaults, our military leaders vowed to make service to our country safer for women who joined.

But the real tragedy coming out of the Tailhook scandal is how little the culture of the military has changed, despite years of promises of reform and house-cleaning by the military’s senior leaders. Countless women, and some men as well, continue to experience sexual assault in shocking numbers.

One of the most appalling realities about Tailhook is that, while hundreds of people were punished, no one was criminally prosecuted for those crimes. And few prosecutions for alleged sexual offenses are taking place in the military today. Often, the perpetrators, if they are punished at all, face only administrative discipline.

How do I know that the military hasn’t properly addressed the issue of sexual assault within its ranks? Because week after week, there are new accounts from survivors who have left the military about how they were preyed upon while in the military.

I heard chilling echoes of the travesty at Tailhook earlier this year, as CNN reported extensively about a sex abuse scandal involving US Coast Guard Academy cadets and a cover-up by the military top brass.

CNN revealed that an internal Coast Guard investigation found that Coast Guard leadership was more concerned about protecting the reputation of the academy than helping the victims, who were also members from among its ranks. The US Senate has now launched its own probe into the scandal.

Quite apart from feeling the sense of betrayal by fellow members of the military, both the Tailhook and the Coast Guard Academy scandals hit very close to home for me for another reason: I was forced to resign my position as Maritime Administration Chief Counsel after reporting sexual assault at the US Merchant Marine Academy in 2011.

Before students graduate from the US Merchant Marine Academy, they are required to go out for a “sea year,” with their fellow mariners, and when they did, they were being sexually assaulted.

A whistleblower notified me of sexual assaults occurring at the school, one of the five federal service schools. According to the accounts from the whistleblower who sought me out, sexual assault and harassment was rife. It was student on student, professor on student and merchant mariner on student during the mandatory sea year.

I found the allegations so troubling that I requested an Inspector General investigation which the IG declined to pursue. A few months later, then-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood directed me to resign, stating that he’d lost confidence in my ability to be the agency’s chief counsel.

[In a statement to CNN, a spokesperson for LaHood said that Krepp’s removal was not taken in retaliation for her request for the launch of an IG investigation. “Denise Krepp was not fired in retaliation for her actions,” read the statement from Joan DeBoer, the former chief of staff for LaHood at the US Department of Transportation.]

That series of events showed me that the leaders of military services care more about the reputations of the service academies than about the well-being of the men and women who have been assaulted.

And indeed, that was the finding made by investigators during an exhaustive inquiry, dubbed Fouled Anchor, that revealed a dark history of sexual misconduct at the Coast Guard Academy, substantiating dozens of rapes and assaults there from the late 1980s to 2006. That probe focused on the Coast Guard Academy but might as well have been speaking about all of the service branch academies.

A US Coast Guard Academy sexual assault survivor who was quoted in the CNN investigation expressed frustration about how inadequately sexual assault and sexual harassment are addressed in the service. “Why is it taking so long to hear us?”

The “us” she was speaking about includes military personnel in all six services. For the 2022 fiscal year, the Department of Defense said it received 8,942 reports of sexual assault involving service members as victims and/or subjects — just about the same number as were reported the previous year. Sexual assault in the military is continuing to this day.

I reluctantly tendered my resignation after being ordered to do so by LaHood. I was in the early months of pregnancy at that time. The following week, I had a miscarriage; I will forever believe that the stress associated with my abrupt dismissal from a job I loved and the loss of my livelihood as the main breadwinner for my family was the precipitating reason why I lost a child. It’s a loss that haunts me to this day.

The internal Coast Guard inquiry determined that Coast Guard Academy leadership was more concerned at that time about organizational reputation than about the victims of crimes who were members of the service. I never fail to be outraged by that. The crown jewel of an institution isn’t the physical structure, it is the people who are part of it. Failing to punish those who commit crimes against fellow service members only tarnishes that legacy.

There were a lot of promises made that women like me entering the military service would find a military where sexual assault would not be tolerated.

CNN’s reporting showed that in the US Coast Guard Academy, and indeed, throughout the services, little has changed over the years. If the promises made after Tailhook had been kept, there would not be a climate of continued sexual predation and sexual violence.

It’s painful to see how the trust of so many service members who put their lives in the hands of the military has been violated. Why haven’t they done more to prevent assaults like the one endured by Hope Hicks, who says that as a 19-year-old US Merchant Marine trainee she was raped aboard the vessel where she was carrying out her military training — by the man she reported to.

I’ve got two children. They’ve witnessed my decade-long work to help military sexual assault survivors, and neither are inclined to join the military, leaving me to be the last one in my family who will have served. I understand the logic behind their decision — and I will never recommend that any mother send her precious child to the Coast Guard Academy or to the US Merchant Marine Academy, knowing firsthand what has befallen so many young people who attend them.

I’m long since out of my job at the Maritime Administration but I am still contacted by sex assault victims. I was contacted recently by a survivor of Tailhook who introduced herself to me by the victim number assigned to her by those investigating the incident.

She just wanted to thank me for advocating for military sexual assault survivors — someone heard the pleas for justice and didn’t just want the crimes swept under the rug. I could not help but be struck that — more than 3 decades since those heinous crimes occurred — her victim number remains part of her identity. It will be with her for the rest of her life. And there has been no resolution to her case.

Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Linda Fagan recently spoke with students at the Coast Guard Academy. She told them that everyone has the right to a workplace free from sexual assault and harassment.

Agreed. But why should the current students trust the current leaders when none of the past leaders have to date been held accountable for the cover-up of the investigation into the sexual crimes at the academy?

What would the appropriate course of action look like? In the case of the US Coast Guard Academy, that means court martialing retired Coast Guard officers who failed to prosecute the rapes at the school between 1988 and 2006.

It would mean recalling a retired commandant and court-martialing him for failing to share information with Congress about crimes at the school. It would mean court martialing and firing individuals still employed at Coast Guard headquarters accountable for the cover-up.

Too many survivors have paid a terrible price because of past failed leadership. In the years since Tailhook, far too little has changed. It’s time for senior government leaders to do the right thing and report and prosecute sexual assaults, instead of continuing to turn a blind eye to these terrible crimes.

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