Panayiota Bertzikis joined the Coast Guard in 2005. A year later, she was out on a hike with a fellow shipman from her Burlington, Vt., company when she says he isolated her, beat her, and raped her. When she reported the incident to her superiors, she says she was accused of slandering another service member, locked in a janitor’s closet while the investigation proceeded, then forced to work alongside her attacker when the investigation stalled. Eventually, she was shipped off to Boston, where she says her new shipmates harassed her for reporting on another service member and then attacked her again—groping her, ripping her clothing, and calling her “crazy.” Reports of that assault were also ignored. In 2007, a military psychologist diagnosed Bertzikis with an “adjustment disorder.” She was deemed “unfit to serve” and discharged from the Coast Guard. Bertzikis “had an inappropriate relationship with another member which ended in accusations of rape,” the report of her discharge read. Her personality “does not appear to be compatible with being able to fully accommodate to the stresses and frustrations of ordinary service life.”
In recent months, a national conversation has erupted on how to address the epidemic of sexual assault across the military. But as Janelle Nanos details in her illuminating Boston magazine story, that conversation does not actually apply to the Coast Guard. As Nanos writes, “because the Coast Guard operates as part of the Department of Homeland Security rather than the Department of Defense,” it’s often left out of congressional legislation aimed at alleviating sexual assaults. The Coast Guard’s assault report statistics aren’t included in the DOD’s counts, and members of the Coast Guard aren’t administered anonymous surveys to track unreported assaults like members of other branches. Additionally, “[i]ts service members are not granted the same legal protections as other members of the military,” Nanos writes, “and victims do not have the same access to legal counsel that is provided in the other branches,” even as its admiral testified before the Armed Services Committee last month.
Stationed at remote bases or out on the water for months, members of the Coast Guard have limited access to the thin support systems in place to handle sexual assault cases. They’re often told to report to Sexual Assault Response Coordinators, who can be stationed “hundreds of miles away.” Last year, Boston’s SARC post was left vacant for six months. The Coast Guard Academy’s superintendent recently addressed the numbers of sexual assaults in the Coast Guard by saying, “If, one time, a guy or gal is clumsy or stupid and tries to touch someone and they’re repulsed, they learn.”
But the most striking disparity that Nanos reports on in her piece may be in how the Coast Guard ultimately dispenses of its rape victims. In a report released last year, Yale’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic found that the military had discharged more than 30,000 service members after diagnosing them with personality disorders. The clinic claims that “those separations were in violation of a DoD rule to protect against wrongful PD discharge and thus were illegal.” After a 2008 report on the problem was released, “the number of personality-disorder discharges began to decrease throughout the military,” Nanos writes. Not so in the Coast Guard, where the number of those diagnoses quadrupled from 2008 to 2010. According to the Yale clinic, “because a personality disorder is considered a pre-existing condition, veterans who received the PD diagnosis are ineligible for certain benefits.”
Bertzikis is now a leading victims’ advocate, working to expose the institutional barriers keeping military sexual assault victims from getting justice. Her story also pinpoints a cultural double standard in the military’s approach to the psychology of assault. In the Coast Guard, a rapist is “clumsy or stupid”; a rape victim is “not able to fully accommodate to the stresses and frustrations of ordinary service life.” The result is that a rapist is excused for making a mistake, while a victim is sidelined with a career-ending mental disorder. Or as Bertzikis puts it: “I was told I was having problems adjusting to being raped.”
Correction, July 3, 2013: This post originally stated that Bertzikis was on a hike with her Coast Guard company when she was raped by a fellow shipman. She was actually on a hike with just the shipman.