ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — Sean Persinger dreamed of being a crewman on the daring rescues performed by the H-60 Jayhawk helicopter units, lowering baskets in rough weather to haul up distressed mariners from raging seas.
His U.S. Coast Guard career as an Aviation Maintenance Technician at Air Station Kodiak, responsible for everything non-electrical on helicopters and aircraft, hit a series of setbacks after a barroom incident in 2007 involving inappropriate sexual behavior by an officer. The issue still haunts his family more than a decade later as he retired June 1, earlier than planned.
For reasons that are in dispute, the officer was not investigated for sexual impropriety, and the Persingers insist they weren’t even the ones who reported the original incident. Yet they say they suffered sustained retaliation, their complaint present from the outset in government records they later obtained.
Persinger’s wife, Jacey, along with others who feel they are victims of harassment and assault, came forward to tell their stories to McClatchy in hopes that it would shine light on a branch of the military that until recently had escaped the glare of the growing #MeToo movement.
“We believe that the Coast Guard is an organization of great people, but there are bad apples,” Jacey Persinger said in an interview. “And the fact that they are protecting the bad apples, and punishing good people, is not OK.”
The Coast Guard disputes that anyone is being protected. But combined with recent critical reports about how the Coast Guard deals with sexual assault, hazing and retaliation, Jacey Persinger’s story puts a face and name to events that happen away from public view and are dealt with under a separate military justice system.
The Coast Guard, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is the smallest of the branches of the armed forces, numbering roughly 40,000 active-duty members. Its elite rescue swimmers, who must pass rigorous testing in North Carolina, are spread out predominantly across aviation units hosting the H-60 Jayhawk and H-65 Dolphin rescue helicopters, and constitute 3% of the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard families came forward to McClatchy last summer, months before an unexpected and blistering Dec. 11 report called Righting the Ship, issued jointly by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the House Committee on Homeland Security.
The report caused a stir, partly because Adm. Karl Schultz, who heads the Coast Guard, declined to testify before Congress about the alleged retaliation for complaints about harassment.
That task fell to Vice Adm. Michael McAllister, the deputy commandant for mission support, who was in the Alaska chain of command that handled Sean Persinger’s later 2017 complaint of retaliation and a hostile workplace.
Coming on the heels of a Defense Department anonymous survey indicating that the percentage of women in the Coast Guard Academy experiencing “unwanted sexual contact” had doubled, the congressional report concluded that Coast Guard leadership failed to conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations of harassment and bullying at the academy.
The findings of the 18-month congressional investigation involved faculty and leadership at the prestigious Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, but the report noted that “the processes used to address allegations apply to the entire Coast Guard.”
“The many failures identified by our investigation send a clear signal to Coast Guard personnel that coming forward with allegations of harassment or bullying is pointless and even potentially damaging to one’s career,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., chairman of the civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee, said during a Dec. 11 hearing that accompanied the report’s release.
And retaliation is at the core of Jacey Persinger’s allegations.
Coast Guard Aviation is a small universe, numbering about 3,000 on active duty, including about 300 rescue swimmers. It’s the world Sean Persinger entered when, just out of the Army, he enlisted in the Coast Guard in 2000. Six years later he transferred to Alaska, where he joined his first H-60 unit at Air Station Kodiak.
Persinger was working toward flight mechanic status when in 2007, during a karaoke night on July 6 at Bernie’s Bar, the Persingers and others saw Lt. Cmdr. Shawn Tripp, seemingly intoxicated and moving his hands under the shirt of another service member’s wife while the woman groped him. The raucous group invited the Persingers to “swing,”
That part is not in dispute. But Jacey Persinger later said she too was groped by Tripp on the dance floor.
“He had me by the hips. It was hard to get away from him, and he was grinding on my leg,” she recalls.
The Coast Guard has rules about officers fraternizing with enlisted personnel, about conduct unbecoming an officer, and it frowns on officers who commit alcohol-related offenses. Tripp was due to fly the next morning, seeming to put him at odds with the so-called bottle-to-throttle rule banning alcohol within 12 hours of a flight mission.
Uncomfortable, the Persingers quickly paid their tab and left, heading off the next morning for a week of vacation. Days later, they were called by the admin office and warned an investigation was underway. An official investigation began on July 12.
It turned out that on Monday morning Tripp was leading a training class on sexual harassment awareness. A service member who was at the bar Friday night and witnessed his behavior was in his class.
Disgusted, she got up and left the training. Her supervisor questioned why she left. She explained and the wheels began turning for an investigation. The woman service member declined to be interviewed by McClatchy.
Publicly available Coast Guard records are inconclusive. They do not show who actually complained.
The initial statements from Sean and Jacey Persinger do not mention an assault on her. Questions by the investigator to the Persingers and others focused only on what later was deemed inappropriate behavior by Tripp.
Multiple service members interviewed by McClatchy confirmed there was a “swing” culture at the time in Air Station Kodiak.
“It was a very interesting time to experience all of this. I come from a conservative, respectful, manners-driven world view,” said one service member who served in Kodiak at the time, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect himself from possible retaliation. “I was surprised that this is what it’s like.”
The experience was shared by Carl Sharitt, who also served in Kodiak at the time and retired as a chief petty officer in 2015 after 30 years of service.
“There was a lot of people playing with other people’s wives,” he recalled.
What is not in dispute is that Persinger reported to his command that the officer in question, the same Lt. Cmdr. Tripp, had pulled him aside, that he appeared to have inside knowledge of the investigation and asked him to change his statement.
In a sworn statement to investigators, Tripp denied that but acknowledged talking to at least five other people about the night. And the records show that Tripp and some of the witnesses changed key parts of their story as the investigation went on.
The original investigator, Lt. Cmdr. Mark Duben, wrote in his Aug. 6, 2007, preliminary finding that Tripp “may have interfered with the outcome of this investigation and caused unwarranted stress and questions of possible retaliation for this witness (Sean Persinger).”
Persinger also complained to his superiors, an investigator and to the base chaplain that he felt he was being retaliated against for telling the truth. This retaliation initially took the form of getting dropped from flights, which had a cascading effect. Unable to get on flights, he couldn’t meet the mandated number of hours for flights and was hit with performance probation and his promotion was put on hold days before Duben’s report concluded.
People who served with Persinger at the time back him up.
“After this incident, he started getting the ‘nasty-grams’ saying you’re not upholding your flight time, we’re going to take away your flight pay. People didn’t want to fly with him because of this situation against the officer,” said the service member who recalled the happenings in Kodiak, and heard Sean complain about his wife being groped soon after the incident.
Sharitt remembers feeling that Persinger was being treated unfairly.
“I definitely heard about it on the hangar deck,” he said. “As far as retaliation, there has always been retaliation any time an enlisted guy says something about an officer. It’s circling the wagons anytime someone accuses one of their own.”
The Coast Guard denies any retaliation took place.
Documents show that the Coast Guard investigator warned Tripp and others who gave statements against any retaliation. But records obtained by McClatchy also show Persinger was reporting in real time that fellow Aviation Maintenance Technicians told him that pilots said he would not be allowed on their flights. When he told a senior chief that he was suffering retaliation for his statements about Tripp, he felt punitive actions followed.
He was bumped off a list for promotion, was reprimanded for failing to have enough hours in the air and placed on performance probation. Persinger was threatened with discharge for slander and put under the supervision of someone junior to him a humiliation undermining his position at the unit.
And the person whose remarks triggered the investigation? She never actually gave a statement. Others around the Persingers did not either. Jacey Persinger thinks people were afraid, having seen how her husband was treated.
“People knew something was going on with him. I felt like I had the plague,” she said. “It was just the two of us on an isolated island, isolated from the community.”
A third service member who served with them in Kodiak, who also insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation, said everyone knew something unusual was happening to Sean.
“I would say he stuck up for himself, and he did what he needed to do in order to stick up for himself,” said the colleague. “He was trying not to be a victim.”
That year when the investigation concluded in August, Tripp was issued a non-punitive letter of censure by the Coast Guard for his behavior with women, behavior he had referred to as “dirty dancing” in Coast Guard investigation documents,
“I find the evidence overwhelming that your lack of judgment fueled this situation,” read the censure letter from Capt. A. J. Berghorn dated Aug. 14, 2007. “Additionally, your actions and responses during this investigation call into question your level of integrity.”
The Berghorn letter said Tripp could have been prosecuted under the Uniform Military Code of Justice, but “I have decided to handle this matter administratively.”
Engulfed in what he considered a hostile work environment, Persinger asked to switch to a different shop in Kodiak away from the H-60 unit, hoping it would provide relief. He was denied. He later sought to move out of Alaska to a recruiting job, which was also initially denied on grounds he had to earn his way back to good performance reviews despite his strong marks for several consecutive years before the incident.
Angered over what she felt was mistreatment of her husband, Jacey Persinger sent letters to Alaskan lawmakers, including Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young. In a response back to the congressman, the Coast Guard’s congressional liaison office said petty officers can’t pick and choose which superior they’ll work with or where.
Rep. Young’s office relayed back that the Coast Guard denied any retaliation and had labeled Persinger an underperformer whose work and behavior were both improving. That set off Jacey Persinger, in part because Young’s letter back and its response from the Coast Guard both left the impression that Sean and Jacey started the investigation into Tripp. They insist they did not.
Jacey Persinger fought back, to no avail, creating a spreadsheet of other enlistees with less flight time who were not being labeled underperformers. The Coast Guard responded at the time that her information was incomplete.
“We stand behind the detailed response at that time, which concluded that then-Petty Officer Persinger was treated fairly in accordance with established Coast Guard human resource management procedures,” said Capt. Anthony Russell, chief spokesman for the Coast Guard.
Then in late 2008, after the response to Congress, photos surfaced of Tripp streaking naked outside an Alaska bar. This behavior actually happened soon after the Bernie’s Bar incident, but the photos surfaced more than a year later. This time the Coast Guard Investigative Services’ office got involved. An investigator’s report recommended Tripp be sent to Captains Mast.
Unique to military justice, a mast is a form of non-judicial internal military punishment that is short of a court-martial and hidden from public view. It is also a way to paper over a problem by discharging a service member for lesser offenses such as alcohol use.
Given the enormous discretion afforded commanding officers, service members can get demoted a rank, or sometimes be quietly pushed into retirement without a hit to their rank and pay, which influences their pensions. Their “honorable discharge” status means the public and future employers never learn of the true nature of their exit.
In Tripp’s case, he actually got a promotion amid the initial Persinger complaint, and was sent to Pensacola, Florida, to oversee training and standards for young pilots. McClatchy reached out repeatedly without success, seeking comment from Tripp, now retired and according to Federal Aviation Administration records operating a pilot service in the state of Washington.
The Persingers’ story is not a surprise to U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who chairs the military personnel subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee and is a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which published “Righting the Ship.”
“I’ve met with countless survivors of sexual violence and harassment in the military and at our academies and there’s always a shared thread: a failure of leadership to address malignant cultural rot in the ranks and, even more damning, cover-ups and retaliation that result in perpetrators being allowed to prey on countless others,” she said, pledging congressional scrutiny on the issue of retaliation for harassment complaints. “If true, the details uncovered in this investigative series have all those shameful hallmarks.”
Citing privacy concerns and McClatchy’s use of “selective sources,” the Coast Guard said it could not release specific information beyond the actions against Tripp that had been released already in Persinger’s case file. Discussing details, said Capt. Russell, “is limited by very valid legal and policy guidance intended to protect the privacy of those involved, including alleged victims, subjects, and witnesses.”
Persinger transferred out of Kodiak in 2009 after eventually getting his flight mechanic qualification. He moved into a recruiting position in Montgomery, Alabama. He returned to his career path in 2013 as a mechanic in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and was sent again in June 2017 to Kodiak.
There, trouble returned.
PAST AS PROLOGUE
Soon after arrival, the Persingers were denied a request to move off base, something they call an uncommon decision given his chief petty officer rank. It seemed odd, and he appealed.
Weeks after reporting to his new unit, Persinger said he was berated, without his superior present as required, by the Base Kodiak commander. As such he wasn’t even in the Air Station Command under which Persinger had been assigned, but seemed to have detailed knowledge of Persinger’s previous tour in Air Station Kodiak.
And soon afterward, Persinger said he bumped into that commander and the now-retired Tripp, who was visiting Kodiak, buying bait for a fishing trip together. He felt it all started to make sense.
What followed in the months ahead was a strange sequel to the couple’s first time in Kodiak.
When Persinger voiced his concerns about reprisals to an officer, mentioning the 2007 incident and that his wife suffered inappropriate sexual touching, an investigation was opened and the couple was assigned a special victims counsel, who advised the family to file a Freedom of Information Act request because of what the counsel felt were irregularities.
Before any documents arrived about the 2007 incident, they were interviewed by agents from the Coast Guard Investigative Services, or CGIS. They were informed that back in 2007 there had been no investigation by CGIS, and say they were told there weren’t resources to look back into the original incident.
Meanwhile, their special victim’s counsel, Cmdr. Paul Markland, argued for an expedited transfer of Persinger out of Alaska. He suggested Persinger be sent to work away from H-60 shops in some other air station.
Instead, Persinger was notified on Feb. 20, 2018, that he was being sent to the Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where there was strong likelihood that he’d overlap with the very people who’d been involved in his original case because of the small numbers of personnel who support rescue missions. Markland made that very point in an unsuccessful appeal.
“His best chance for a clean slate without additional reprisal would be at a small MH-65 unit like the ones in Houston and Detroit,” said Markland’s March 9, 2018, appeal letter to Coast Guard Kodiak’s command, offering 16 alternative locations for Persinger.
Markland’s suggestion was supported in writing by now-Vice Adm. McAllister, but there is no evidence he pushed back on the decision. The Coast Guard said victims’ counsel recommendations are only advisory, not binding. Final decisions about enlistees are made by the service’s Personnel Service Center.
After being transferred to Elizabeth City, Persinger worked his final few years without incident before putting in and being approved for retirement this spring after 26 years of service. He had the right to stay in and retire at 30 years with a higher rank and higher pension. His goal had been to retire as a master chief.
Jacey Persinger remains puzzled how telling the truth about events at an Alaskan bar some 13 years ago would have consequences felt over the course of a career.
“It’s one thing to have your whole world flipped upside down. It’s another to have your career cut short,” she said. “It’s another to have friends people you thought were friends turn their back, ignore you, because they don’t want to be associated with it. They don’t want to lose their career, because they don’t want bad things to happen to them.”