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.
Strickland provided the redacted chat logs to Navy Times, which he had obtained from the Coast Guard via a Freedom of Information Act request.
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."
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
Telling them that they didn't have to incriminate themselves constituted obstruction of justice, Strickland recalled the agents telling him.
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.
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.
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."
"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."
He was sentenced to four months confinement, reduction in rank to E-1 and a bad conduct discharge, Brzuska said.
"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?"
"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.
"I'm a small part of this," he said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.