No one can know what motivated the actions of former Coast Guard Academy Command Chief Brett VerHulst, but they were clearly inappropriate and Coast Guard leadership made the right choice in investigating them and acting.
In April, Rear-Admiral Superintendent William Kelly relieved VerHulst of his duties at the academy and reassigned him. Following this investigation, the Personnel Service Center approved Kelly’s request for permanent relief on July 9, meaning her dismissal. But no action has been taken against VerHulst in the military justice system, which means he is entitled to his military retirement after serving more than 20 years.
This result corresponds to the situation.
Investigators interviewed female cadets, enlisted members and a junior officer. Day staff writer Eric Moser obtained the report resulting from a Freedom of Information Act request.
What investigators heard were repeated stories of the Chief Captain hugging female cadets, sometimes placing a kiss on the forehead or cheek. Reactions to the drive varied from one cadet who was not disturbed to one who felt very uncomfortable – with a range of responses in between. No one said they had any indication that VerHulst was acting with sexual intent.
But a male peer testified that he warned the chief captain that he felt he was stepping over the lines and acting inappropriately towards female Coast Guard members.
A person in a senior position should be more careful and circumspect in his conduct. The gestures described – a peck on the head, a hand behind the back, unwanted hugs – do not meet the standards of military conduct. And these cadets weren’t able to tell a superior that their actions made them uncomfortable.
Are the lines always clear? No. The goal should not be to make our workplaces devoid of all physical contact. Sometimes a person experiencing a crisis or receiving good news can use a hug and be happy about it. But it shouldn’t be a frequent and occasional part of any workplace, especially if it is initiated multiple times by someone in a position of power and higher rank.
“Your behavior demonstrates a lack of self-awareness of proper boundaries with military personnel of the opposite sex,” Kelly wrote to the senior chief, aptly summing up the situation.
It was a painful lesson for VerHulst, but one that others can learn.
The Day Editorial Board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and meets weekly to formulate editorial perspectives. It is made up of President and Editor Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Editor-in-Chief Izaskun E. Larrañeta, Editor Erica Moser and retired Associate Editor. Lisa McGinley. However, only the editor and the editor of the editorial page are responsible for the preparation of editorial notices. The board operates independently of the Day newsroom.