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Former US Coast Guard Academy cadet says 'culture' worsened trauma of sexual assault

Former Member of United States Coast Guard Academy, Class of 2008, Caitlin E. Maro, testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, in Washington.
Mariam Zuhaib
/
AP
Former Member of United States Coast Guard Academy, Class of 2008, Caitline E. Maro, testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, in Washington.

A former U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadet said the culture at the academy contributed to mental health trauma she and other cadets suffered, and continue to suffer, after they were sexually harassed and assaulted.

Caitlin Maro, a former cadet who left the academy in New London before her career could even begin, said she was solicited for sex, groped publicly and sexually assaulted.

In a written testimony at a U.S. Senatesubcommittee hearing Dec. 12, Maro said: “It became routine for me to field emails, text messages, and verbal comments from fellow cadets soliciting sex, or dehumanizing comments about my body. I knew, even then at 18 years old, that serving as a woman in the U.S. Coast Guard was going to be challenging, but I did not think that the service was filled with ravenous wolves throughout the chain of command.”

She said the constant groping, a 21-credit course load, and surviving sexual assault in a culture that retaliated against cadets who came forward, drove her to lock herself in her metal wardrobe sobbing. Her boyfriend at the time found her, and when she told him that she wanted to die, he called her mother who stepped in to help.

It's difficult for me to explain to people on the outside just how crushing that environment is and any weakness that you show at all is picked on, like a scab,” she said. “I knew that there was a campus therapist; it was not an option,” she said. “You risked your career. It’s just the culture that existed. That the moment you asked for help, was the moment you were seen as weak.”

Suzanna Bobadilla, an attorney at Katz, Banks, Kumin LLP which represents three cadets who survived the abuse, said she is in disbelief.

“The Coast Guard service employs only 12 military behavioral specialists along with five contracted counselors,” she said, referring to the Coast Guard’s Accountability and Transparency Review Nov. 27. “To me, that was just astounding.” 

In a statement to Connecticut Public, the academy said the incidents are under investigation, and it is evaluating its policies surrounding prevention, response and victim recovery.

The proposed policy changes are a result of Operation Fouled Anchor, which came to public attention following an investigation by CNN.

Maro said she decided to testify to hold people accountable and to ensure that what happened to her would not happen to other cadets.

In her written testimony, Maro recalled the words of her commander: “We didn’t initially investigate because we figured that this happened on a date. You do have blonde hair and wear makeup,” he stated as his rationale for not investigating my allegations in the first place, Maro wrote.

Maro obtained an honorable discharge in 2005 and is now a stay-at-home Mom.

Current cadet Kyra Holmstrup, president of Cadets Against Sexual Assault (CASA), said in her testimony that “we always talk about how trauma stems from the assault, but the reporting system continues to re-victimize and causes trauma of its own.”

The Coast Guard said it is struggling with a workforce shortage and cannot maintain the same level of operations with its current shortfall.

Lisa Hagen in Washington D.C., contributed to this story.

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.