Reports of a Coast Guard sexual assault cover up that came to light in June threatens national security, lawmakers and whistleblowers said during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee inquiry into the issue on Tuesday.

The whistleblowers — both current and former members of the Coast Guard — testified before lawmakers about the alleged four-year-old cover up of a report known within the service as “Operation Fouled Anchor.” The report detailed years of sexual assault and inaction at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy from the late 1980s to 2006, alleging instances of sexual misconduct by at least 43 academy staff.

The issues first came to light earlier this summer when reports by CNN and other outlets chronicled dozens of sexual assault reports filed by academy cadets which leadership is accused of either ignoring or covering up.

The panel of former and current servicewomen — who served across numerous decades — told lawmakers Tuesday about their experiences dealing with sexual assault and harassment at the Coast Guard Academy and after leaving the institution.

One witness, Caitlin Maro, testified that she dropped out of the academy in 2005 after multiple instances of sexual assault. Her assailant, she said, had groped her on numerous instances, at times in front of dozens of witnesses.

Another Coastie, retired Lt. Melissa McCafferty, had taken a trip to New York City with an older cadet. After making clear they’d have two hotel rooms, McCafferty went with the cadet, but there was only one room. Over three days, McCafferty said the older cadet repeatedly raped her. She did not report the instance out of fear of retaliation, eventually attempting to end her life in 2017.

“It is an abject failure of integrity that senior leaders have concealed, condoned and otherwise enabled this behavior to thrive,” McCafferty told lawmakers. “It is an abject failure of leadership that they have refused to address the systemic nature of this abuse.”

Failing to address such issues threatens the service’s readiness and retention, one panelist warned.

“The people drive the ships, the people rescue the other people, the people fire the weapons,” said retired Air Force Col. Lorry Fenner, who leads the government affairs division of the non-profit Service Women’s Action Network advocacy group. “If you don’t take care of your people and their families, then you have this recruiting problem, this retention problem, this readiness problem.”

In July, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan — who assumed the role in June 2022 — ordered a 90-day accountability and transparency review of the service’s sexual assault and harassment policies.

Released on Dec. 6, some of Fagan’s recommendations include creating a prevention program modeled after the Defense Department and increasing oversight of the Coast Guard Academy. Fagan, who is the first woman to lead a branch of the U.S. military, told lawmakers this past July that senior Coast Guard leaders need to begin to rebuild trust within the service.

“I am the commandant now, and I am committed to that not happening again,” Fagan told lawmakers in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee this summer. “It is clear to me that we’ve got a culture in areas that is permissive and allows sexual assaults, harassment, bullying, retaliation, that is inconsistent with our core values.”

Zamone “Z” Perez is a reporter at Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.

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