Nearly two years ago, a Coast Guard executive officer reported an alleged sexual assault between two E-3s aboard his ship. The victim filed a complaint and the perpetrator confessed within days, but when the investigation was over, so was the officer's career.
Cmdr. Ben Strickland, a nearly 20-year officer with three years in the Navy before transferring to the Coast Guard, says he's the victim of overreach by Coast Guard investigators who dredged up years-old private messages that were inappropriate but unrelated to the criminal investigation.right?/sftold Navy Times that he was fired because of controversial messages he'd sent over the Coast Guard's instraservice messenger system, which were searched by the Coast Guard Investigative Service during its sexual assault investigation.
He was cannedrelieved of duty as the XO of the high endurance cutter Munro's XO in Jan. 2014 and soon after filedinitiated complaints with various government agencies and inspectors general, alleging that his firing was retaliation for opening the sexual assault investigation.
A Coast Guard spokesman for the Coast Guard denied this charge, sayingclaiming Strickland was fired by his commanding officer over instant messages sent during the investigation.
The inquiry by the Coast Guard Investigative Service initial CGIS Investigation into the assault on board triggered a command climate investigation with Pacific Area's command, which found no issues with the Kodiak Island, Alaska-based ship. The CGIS investigation led to the perpetrator's special court-martial conviction a year later.
Still, the investigators mounted a full-court-press inquiry, In the course of their investigation, CGIS pullinged email and instant message logs for the Munro's entire 170-person crew. Microsoft Office Communicator logs for Munro's entire crew.
Strickland said instant told Navy Times Jan. 13 that messages he sent — some of which expressed his frustration with and distrust of CGIS, and others that were sexist or homophobic in nature — led to a bad officer evaluation point and his firing in Jan. 2014.
Strickland provided the redacted chat logs to Navy Times, which he had obtained from the Coast Guard via a Freedom of Information Act request.
"I wouldn't have been fired if you hadn't read my [instant messages]IMs, and you wouldn't have read my IMs if I didn't report the sexual assault," Strickland told Navy Times in a Jan. 13 phone interviewargued.
He appealed to Alaska lawmakers, including He took his case to Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, on the grounds that his removal violated and former Sen. Mark Begich, as well as Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), arguing that his firing violated the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects service members from reprisal for making protected communications about a violation of a law or a regulation.
Murkowski appealed to both the Coast Guard's Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs, Homeland Security Department's Office of Legislative Affairs and the DHS inspector general, but all three found that Strickland's case didn't meet the standard of reprisal against a whistleblowerfit the bill, according to letters provided to Navy Times.
Though he said he knows his career is effectively over, Strickland said he wanted to come forward to publicize what has happened to him.
"I think there's a larger issue here, and I think it's the mismanagement by the CGIS and the Coast Guard itself," he said.
The Coast Guard, however, denies any retaliation on its part, stating that Strickland's relief came at the hands of his CO, due to "inappropriate communications" discovered during the CGIS investigation.
"The commanding officer of Cutter Munro felt these communications significantly undermined Cmdr. Strickland's leadership authority and ability to execute his duties as executive officer," PACAREA spokesman Lt. Donnie Brzuska told Navy Times. "The command acted in the best interest of the crew of Munro, the victim and witnesses involved."
In late May 2013, a female seaman assigned to Munro came to Strickland's office to tell him that a male E-3 on board had been gropingabbing her on multiple occasions on board in the past year. throughout the previous year.
Munro's commanding officer, Capt. Mark Cawthorn, had been on leave, so Strickland was in charge on May 23.
After a call to Cawthorn, Strickland called PACAREA to request a CGIS investigation, as well as Kodiak's local sexual assault and response coordinator for the victim.
A CGIS agent came to Munro the following day, and one day after that, the suspect confessed to assaulting his shipmate.
"I was just devastated that this happened to one of my young shipmates," Strickland said. "I thought I had set a high standard of good order and discipline, but obviously, this young man that did it to her had some sort of character flaw. He thought this sort of behavior was acceptable."
A week after the initial report, an O-6 from PACAREA arrived on board Munro to conduct a command climate investigation.
Munro's commanding officer, Capt. Mark Cawthorn, had a reputation as a macho cowboy-type, Strickland said, and it seemed as though CGIS/or PACAREA? was trying to paint Munro's command as an environment where sexual assault was at best not taken seriously, and at worst, permitted.
In early June, Cawthorn called the crew together to explain to them why a personnelcommand climate investigator was asking questions. He told them to cooperate and provide information whenever possible, Strickland recalled, but reminded them that they didn't have to incriminate themselves.
Then the sexual assault investigation heated up. Changed. It's arguably weird that a CO would say this to crew/sf things started to get weird, Strickland said, as CGIS continued to interview the crew.
"I had distraught crew members coming to see me, basically saying that they were being strong-armed, that they were treated unfairly," he said. "And these are witnesses — they aren't suspects."
The victim's roommate came to his office, Strickland recalled, to tell him CGIS had threatened her, saying, "We have your emails and if you don't cooperate we're going to ruin your career."
They were referring to some emails the roommate had sent to her mother, complaining about other women on the ship. It turned out that CGIS had pulled emails and instant message logs for the entire crew.
"I wanted you to investigate the sexual assault – I don't need people to come on here and tell me that the victim's roommate sent some emails to her mother where she called other females on board bitches," Strickland said.
He said he felt like CGIS had decided to investigate his entire crew, rather than the sexual assault he had reported.
That's an unusual move, according to a former Army judge advocate general officer.
"I'd say it's not very common to be pulling messages from a witness," Greg Rinckey, a civilian defense attorney in New Yorkwho now works in private practice, told Navy Times on Feb. 3.
"I mean, it's one thing to pull it on the accused, it's another to pull it on witnesses, unless they're suspected of maybe lying or giving a false official statement," he said.
A former senior officer with knowledge of the Munro case, who asked for anonymity to protect his employmentspoke to Navy Times on the condition of anonymity, was equally stunned by the search.
"When have you ever done that for a sexual assault? What do the emails of the entire ship have to do with a sexual assault case?" he said.
The senior officer added that he'd heard the CGIS investigator, Chief Warrant Officer Aaron Woods, was on a "personal jihad" against the CO.
"It seemed like they were out to hang Cawthorn," he said.
By June 14, PACAREA had wrapped up its command investigation, and the O-6 in charge told Cawthorn and Strickland that he found nothing negative about their command climate.
A day later, Strickland met with CGIS agents, who said they'd expanded their sexual assault investigation to include Cawthorn's and his remarks to the crew. The agents said Cawthorn's warning against self-incrimination constituted an obstruction of justice, Strickland said.
Telling them that they didn't have to incriminate themselves constituted obstruction of justice, Strickland recalled the agents telling him.
Strickland says he understood Cawthorn's comments as relating to the command inquiry, but said that CGIS pressured him to say they also pertained to the CGIS criminal probe. Strickland said added that they pressured him to state that the captain's comments had to do with the CGIS investigation, though he reassured them Cawthorn had been referring to the command climate inquiry when he spoke to the crew.
But there wasn't any time left to investigate the CO: Cawthorn handed over Munro's command on June 18, 2013, and retired after 27 years on active duty.
Two weeks after the Coast Guard cutter Munro returned to Base Kodiak, Alaska, from a 2013 deployment, the executive officer was relieved.
Photo Credit: PO1 Kelly Pa/Coast Guard District 17
That afternoon, Strickland and his new CO, Capt. Jeff Thomas, met with CGIS agents, who told them they intended to interview all 170-plus crew members about Cawthorn's comments.
The interviews were wrapped up by the end of June, when Munro left Alaska for a Western Pacific deployment. When they returned in mid-September, CGIS requested to re-interview four crew members regarding the sexual assault investigation.
In January 2014, Strickland was officially confirmed as the next Coast Guard liaison officer for the Navy's 6th Fleet in Naples, Italy.
But two weeks later, Thomas called him in for a meeting. He informed Strickland that he was being relieved for cause based on the instant messages CGIS had pulled during the previous year's sexual assault investigation.
Soon after, he found out his orders to Naples had been canceled, Strickland said.
Strickland, 42, now assigned to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., admitted that he used some choice words while chatting with other officers online. He also admitted to questioning CGIS' handling of the investigation.
"They are going to try and 'prove' that there is a command climate from the CO/XO that facilitates excessive alcohol consumption which likely is the causitive [sic] factor in the sexual harassment case," Strickland wrote to another Coast Guard member, whose name was redacted, in 2014. PLEASE STATE WHAT REPORTS WE HAVE AND WHOM WE GOT THEM FROM
Strickland told Navy Times he believed he was fired for expressing his opinion about CGIS, and for off-handedly using a homophobic slur in a private instant message conversation that took place in 2012, before he reported to Munro.
The chat logs, however, contain evidence of other inappropriate language. are more damning than that.
Though Strickland said he was devastated that the woman had been assaulted, the records he provided to Navy Times suggest he knew that the perpetrators had a habit of grabbing histheir female shipmates.
On May 25, 2013, he told a friend about the start of the investigation.
"My 'A gang' guys like playing grabass/cop and feel with each other in the shop," Strickland wrote. "Problem is now it has escalated to where they tried good gaming one of my female SN...Needless to say, she didn't react like the others did and now is an emotional wreck."
"Yeah, you could say this is a sensitive issue right now in the CG," he added. "Got the lawyers involved and everything. The female SN is psycho enough to begin with."
Strickland said that he sent the message after the CGIS agent in charge had briefed him after the initial investigation interviews, but that he wasn't aware of the behavior beforehand.
"Why would I cover something up that I reported?" he said. "That makes no sense."
Strickland also made sexually charged statements innuendos and judgments about a female officer and several enlisted women he servedworked with during 2012 and 2013.
"Instant messages from Cmdr. Strickland were inappropriate," Brzuska, the PACAREA spokesman, said. "He also apparently minimized the nature of the sexual assault under investigation and admitted to encouraging his crew to not cooperate with law enforcement. These messages ultimately led to the command's decision to relieve Cmdr. Strickland."
Though Strickland's Jan. 2013 officer evaluation report shows mostly stellar ratings from an operational and leadership standpoint, Thomas came down on his personal and professional qualities, citing the investigation.
"I think that he took everything out of context because he was looking for a reason to fire me," Strickland said. "And I think they were mad that I criticized the investigation."
Thomas wrote that he lost confidence in Strickland's ability due to a "demonstrated lack of support for CG policies" and a failure to "adhere to CG core values."
"A capable officer who possess [sic] the administrative and managerial skills to contribute positively to CG; must align personal beliefs with CG direction and core values," Thomas wrote. "Not recommended for promotion or future afloat assignments."
Strickland argues that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy while communicating at work, but Rinckey, the defense attorney and former Army JAG, flatly denies that.
"Can it be used to show that you're screwing around? Yeah. Can it be used against you if you're forwarding an off-color joke? Probably not," he said. "Although you're still misusing government systems."
Fireman Daniel H. Rose pleaded guilty May 28, 2014 — a year after the investigation began — to both grabbing the victim and repeatedly making sexual comments about her body, a year after the investigation began.
He was sentenced to four months confinement, reduction in rank to E-1 and a bad conduct discharge, Brzuska said.
Strickland and othersnd his fellow senior officer still has faceshave?questionsas to why it took so long to charge and convict Rose.
"Why would you waste the time and resources going after some poor commander up in Kodiak? For what?" the anonymous officer said. "You're telling me that sexual assault and all of this is rampant throughout the Coast Guard, but you want to use your scarce resources to worry about what Ben Strickland is doing six months after Cawthorn's retirement? When the guy who did it admitted to it on day two? "
CGIS was entitled to dig into Strickland's background, Rinckey said, but it could set a dangerous precedent for sexual assault investigations.
"In the past, victims were afraid to come forward because they were afraid the tables were going to be turned on them," he said. "Now we're going to start doing that with witnesses?"
Service members should know that their communication isn't protected on a government computer at work and they could be punished for things they said years ago, Rinckey said, adding this should be balanced with , law enforcement should balance that against the consequences of prosecuting valuable witnesses.
"You have to weigh that with witnesses being willing to cooperate," he said. "If I were a witness, would I want the government to be reviewing three years of my emails? Did I say something stupid in an email three years ago? I'm sure I did."
Strickland confirmed Sept. 18 that he had recently submitted a request with the Coast Guard's Board for Correction of Military Records to have his relief stricken from his service record.
He added that he came forward, not to change the outcome of his case, but to highlight what he feels is a witch hunt so that it doesn't happen to others. Though it won't change the outcome of his case, Strickland said, he wanted to come forward with his story to put some attention on the Coast Guard's handling of criminal investigations.
"I'm a small part of this," he said.