The Case of CDR Benjamin Strickland
A different time, but the same corruption…
Such was the case of CDR Ben Strickland, a military man who was punished for helping a victim of sexual assault. CDR Strickland was a highly decorated officer in the U.S. Coast Guard with a promising career ahead of him, however, that all came to an abrupt halt when a young Sailor/victim of sexual assault approached him for help. Despite working in an environment that encouraged commanders to cover-up allegations of sexual assault, CDR Strickland made the morally courageous decision to support the victim; he personally ensured the young woman got the help she so desperately needed.
As such, CDR Strickland soon found himself in the cross hairs of his leadership and the victim of military witch-hunt.
The assorted details of this commander’s ordeal can be found on Amazon in the book “The Case of CDR Benjamin Strickland” written by Judge L. Steverson, USALJ (Ret). The book can be found on the Save Our Heroes Reading List at http://www.saveourheroesproject.com/reading-list.html
Save Our Heroes has tracked down the honorable CDR Strickland (now retired and working in the Washington DC area) who made the following statement about his ordeal:
“The book you mention is indeed about me and the retaliation myself and my family endured at the hands of senior Coast Guard officials. On 23 May 2013, I was serving as Acting Commanding Officer of USCGC MUNRO (WHEC-724) homeported in Kodiak, Alaska. When I reported an allegation of a sexual assault to my Immediate Superior in Command. The allegation included a female E-3 (victim) and a male E-3 (accused) and involved multiple incidents of inappropriate (and potentially unlawful) sexual contact occurring over a period of several months pertaining to the same individuals. Under the authority granted to me as Acting Commanding Officer under Coast Guard Regulations as well as Coast Guard sexual assault prevention and response policies, I predicated an investigation by Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding what I believed to be potential sexual assault(s). My reports of an allegation of a sexual assault (as well as my subsequent complaint of mismanagement of the investigation predicated under my authority) are considered “protected communications” under 10 USC 1034, the Military Whistleblower Protection Act. The statute prohibits retribution against an individual who files a report of waste, abuse of authority, gross mismanagement, or a sexual assault to “any person or organization in the chain of command”.
Despite the accused E-3 (male) having confessed on the second day of the investigation, CGIS investigation remained open for months without resolution. I also received multiple first-hand reports from my subordinates of potential misconduct by CGIS agents as well as second-hand ones from USCG Pacific Area staff members regarding potential abuse of authority and unlawful command influence by CGIS and senior Coast Guard officials (to include the Pacific Area Chief of Staff and CGIS Director who were having daily telephone conversations regarding my report). This gross mismanagement culminated after the ship’s change of command weeks later on 18 Jun 2013 in which my new Commanding Officer, CAPT Jeffrey W. Thomas suggested I depart the ship on leave, and the very next day had CGIS agents conduct an unlawful search of my private living quarters without written authorization by a military judge in accordance with the Manual for Courts Martial and the USCG Military Justice Manual where they seized my government computer and portable hard drive. Upon my return I expressed concerns to CAPT Thomas that CGIS agents were not properly investigating the alleged sexual assault; he dismissed my concerns and refused to discuss the matter further with me. Instead of focusing on protection of the victim and prosecution of the accused, CGIS and Coast Guard Legal representatives sought to retaliate against me. They made me an unlawful target of investigations which stemmed from my report when they searched my stateroom where I, as a witness and not having been a subject or accused in any duly authorized investigation at any time, had a reasonable expectation of privacy per the Constitution and existing case law. The extent of their targeting consisted of over 20,000 emails and instant message (IMs) communications dating back to October 2011, almost two years prior to my report of a sexual assault – IMs they sought to use as a pretext for which they could have me removed from my position.
Months later – in January 2014 – CGIS and Coast Guard Legal gave these IMs to Pacific Area senior management and the Commanding Officer for them to use as a basis for a derogatory OER from which they could have me removed from primary duties as Executive Officer (XO). Beyond my complaints of mismanagement by senior Coast Guard managers and CGIS and seeking guidance from my professional network about preparing a complaint to the DHS Office of Inspector General, these IMs had no nexus/connection to the sexual assault. Moreover, but for my report of a sexual assault CGIS, PACAREA and the Commanding Officer would never have retrieved and reviewed my IMs. These IMs were not only comprised of purely private conversations unrelated to official government business, but were previously routinely monitored by CG IT support with no issues or allegations of impropriety. Furthermore, there was no valid reason for CGIS and Pacific Area to make me the target of investigations I had requested in the first place. These IMs unlawfully reviewed without probable cause in many cases not only fell outside the reporting period for the OER, but also included protected communications with the Base Chaplains Office, Work-Life/HSWL staff, and Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC).
CGIS, PACAREA and the Commanding Officer acted against me without proper authority. The Commanding Officer admitted to me when I challenged his unlawful actions on 23 Jan 2014 that I was at no time ever the subject of any criminal or administrative investigation; no formal investigation was ever initiated against me in accordance with the Administrative Investigations Manual or the Military Justice Manual. Nevertheless, the chain of command unlawfully searched my stateroom, seized my work computer, retrieved my personal communications, and then improperly used IMs they obtained for the purposes of retaliation against me for my having reported an allegation of a sexual assault and for my later disclosure of what I (and many others at the O-6 level at the PACAREA staff) reasonably believed to be internal wrongdoing on the part of multiple Coast Guard management officials
I was removed from primary duties and sent to a junior officer billet inconsistent with my rank as a senior officer. At this time, no action whatsoever had been taken against the accused – clearly giving insight that the Coast Guard’s priorities did not lie in protection of the victim and prosecution of the accused, but rather retaliation. I filed a complaint with the DoD Inspector General who conducted a preliminary inquiry and found sufficient evidence to refer my complaint to the DHS Inspector General for investigation. Having several opportunities come my way in the maritime industry last year, I opted to retire from active duty.
It is important that Coast Guard personnel recognize the corruption and misconduct that exist at the highest levels of the organization and CGIS. Reforms are desperately needed in order to prevent the use of criminal investigations by senior leadership as a form of reprisal for those who report sexual assaults and participate as witnesses. As it stands now, CGIS and Coast Guard legal are managed more akin to a criminal syndicate, “serving” a purpose of providing political hit jobs for the top brass, than existing as entities interested in the pursuit of military justice.
Ben Strickland, CDR, USCG (Retired)”