Email Article

Posted: May 2, 2017

AMO weighs in again on lingering KP assault, harassment issues

By Paul Doell
National President

When then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx authorized gradual reinstatement of "Sea Year" at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy January 12, he directed the department's Maritime Administration to hold focus on "the climate at sea and the treatment of Midshipmen" during the academy's traditional time of hands-on training aboard privately owned and operated U.S. merchant vessels.

This was the first indication that DOT will not walk back its baseless, offensive official position that USMMA cadets are inspired to sexual misconduct on campus by the behavior of the merchant mariners they work with during Sea Year, which Foxx had suspended in June 2016.

More signs that DOT will not retreat from its diversionary stand emerged April 5, when the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies heard DOT testimony on this persistent issue. The witnesses were: Rear Adm. James Hellis, USMMA superintendent; Joel Szabat, executive director of MARAD; and Calvin L. Scovel III, the department's inspector general.

"It became clear to me that we needed to more closely examine the Sea Year and its potential effects, as that is the component of our program that sets USMMA apart from the other federal service academies," Rear Adm. Hellis told the Senate panel in a prepared statement.

"In the wake of a series of reports that indicated problems with sexual misconduct and other coercive behaviors, both on campus and at sea, DOT and MARAD leadership suspended commercial Sea Year so we could develop a better understanding of the problem and a strategy to ensure the safety of the Midshipmen," Szabat testified.

Citing a June 2016 "warning" from the accrediting Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Scovel noted: "Recognizing the continuing indications of sexual assault and sexual harassment, the former Transportation Secretary (Foxx) directed USMMA to stand down the Sea Year program in June 2016."

Thus, the DOT argument suggested strongly if not stated directly: sexual misconduct is a problem on the USMMA campus, and the problem is rooted at sea among our merchant mariners.

This and the absence of witnesses from the private sector - labor and industry - prompted American Maritime Officers to comment to the subcommittee for the hearing's official record. I did so on behalf of our union in a letter April 12 to Subcommittee Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI). The text of this letter follows.

Dear Senators Collins and Reed:

On behalf of the private sector U.S. merchant marine officers I am privileged to represent, I welcome this opportunity to comment on witness testimony April 5 during your subcommittee's hearing on the prevention of sexual abuse and sexual harassment at the venerable U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y. This is an increasingly important issue with extensive implications - U.S. national security among them - and I am pleased to provide relevant perspective.

Each of the three witnesses testifying before your subcommittee - public officials whose responsibilities include USMMA administration and oversight - focused almost exclusively on curbing sexual assault, harassment and abuse on the USMMA campus. They discussed the Department of Transportation's ongoing reform strategy to assist victims, deter offenses and improve a USMMA "culture" said to encourage inappropriate or even illegal behavior.

We appreciate the intent, and we support it completely. We do not abide such conduct within our membership ranks, and we support constructive measures to create safe, comfortable living and learning environments for USMMA cadets.

However, we are troubled by the underlying premise driving the Department's effort. DOT and its Maritime Administration have for the past year asserted that sexual assault, abuse and harassment are routine at sea in the commercial U.S. merchant fleet, that USMMA Midshipmen are influenced and corrupted by the alleged actions of the career mariners they work with while training aboard ship, and that these students return to USMMA believing that sexual misconduct is accepted and even expected on campus.

Each of the government witnesses before your subcommittee referred briefly to this dubious, deficient DOT-MARAD case, which was used last year to justify DOT's suspension of hands-on "Sea Year" training of USMMA Midshipmen in their sophomore and junior years.

In a senseless twist just weeks later, DOT and MARAD exempted government ships from Sea Year suspension - Midshipmen were placed in the Military Sealift Command, MARAD and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fleets.

It is difficult to reconcile the official rationale behind Sea Year suspension with the lack of conclusive evidence supporting it. It is also difficult to align the DOT-MARAD stand with our direct experience representing seagoing professionals licensed and vetted by the U.S. Coast Guard - including many USMMA alumni serving on both commercial and government vessels. In American Maritime Officers, there were no known cases of sexual assault and only one documented case of sexual harassment in at least the last 20 years - and, in the latter example, the proven offender was expelled from our union.

Moreover, U.S. shipping companies have strict, longstanding "zero tolerance" sexual assault and harassment policies, which are supported fully by the seagoing unions these companies employ. What makes this specific point especially noteworthy in this context is an industry consensus that the need to invoke these policies is rare.

Nor can the Sea Year suspension exemption carved out for government vessels be squared logically with the fact that many of the mariners employed on these vessels had worked previously in the commercial fleet said by DOT and MARAD to provide safe harbor to perverts and predators. If a merchant mariner is inclined to sexual misconduct aboard a ship operating in international or domestic trade, is this mariner inclined to restrain impulse and check personal proclivity at the gangway when he boards a government vessel?

Ironically, the only known current or at least recent case of sexual assault at sea under the U.S. flag involved civil service Military Sealift Command employees on an MSC ship assigned to the Diego Garcia outpost in the Indian Ocean.

Today's commercial U.S. merchant mariner workforce is comprised typically of decent, honest, responsible, well-trained and hard-working men and women of strong character. Because they live where they work during long rotations at sea, they are essentially "family," and they treat each other accordingly. They have no patience for anyone among them whose behavior compromises morale or threatens the safe and efficient operation of the vessel. Each of these mariners is aware that professional misconduct of any kind can cost them not only their credentials and careers, but also their families and friendships. Despite these qualities and the values they reflect, mariners must now endure having been stigmatized unjustly as morally unfit for work at sea.

These merchant mariners are also the first to "turn to" for strategic sealift and other military support services in defense emergencies, both for surge shipping and longer term delivery of combat equipment and day-to-day supplies to U.S. Armed Forces overseas. But their numbers are falling quickly in direct proportion to the unabated decline of the privately owned and operated commercial U.S. merchant fleet, which delivered 95 percent of defense cargoes to the war zones during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom under the Maritime Security Program.

USMMA - the only service academy with its own battle standard - is a reliable source of qualified, reliable mariners, and any interruption of training on campus or at sea would seal off this pipeline and aggravate the mariner shortage that jeopardizes mobilization capabilities.

In our view, the scandal here is not widespread sexual misconduct at sea in the commercial U.S. merchant fleet, but the unfair, fabricated perception of it. Just as there is no specific, verifiable data from within the commercial U.S. merchant fleet to support the DOT-MARAD assertions, there is no evidence to support the official argument that government vessels are safer physically and emotionally for USMMA Midshipmen. Under these circumstances, we cannot help but be skeptical of official motives.

Nevertheless, we are relieved to know that Sea Year at USMMA has been reinstated at a gradual rate as it applies to the private sector American merchant fleet. But we remain frustrated by the approach taken by DOT and MARAD, and by the casual way in which the collective reputation of American merchant mariners was tarnished. Our hope now is that USMMA commencements will not be delayed and that enrollment at the Academy will not decline.

I ask respectfully that you include this letter in the official record of your subcommittee's April 5 hearing, and that private sector perspective be considered should you hold subsequent hearings on this issue.

Thank you for your time and attention.