This week, Senators Roger Wicker and Susan Collins wrote the Secretary of Transportation expressing their frustration with MARAD’s failure to fully restore Sea Year and its poor communications and transparency with “Midshipmen, Congress and stakeholders.” Disturbingly, the Senators reveal that despite being informed by MARAD on December 23, 2021 that the Sea Year
pause cancellation had been lifted without impact on the midshipmen, they had received constituent reports that as of January 25, 2022, “at least 35 students will be 50 days short of the number of sea days required to sit for their licensing exam and graduate on time. The Senators requested that Congress receive weekly updates
“on the current status of Sea Year onboard commercial vessels and on the ability of students to obtain adequate sea days to graduate on time.”
The emphasized language in the above quote is important. It shows that the message is getting to our representatives in Congress that the Academy’s Sea Year is about training on militarily-useful commercial ships. No substitute is acceptable. It is that training on militarily-useful commercial ships that allows Academy midshipmen to walk out Vickery Gate and on to commercial ships as Strategic Sealift Officers (“SSOs”) capable of immediately supporting our military in times of national emergency with no further training necessary.
Much as all of the above is important, I find the Senators’ letter interesting because they hit very close to what is likely the only true solution to the issue of SASH in the maritime industry. After noting that MARAD has provided no documentation as to how how “the feedback of students, unions, commercial carriers, experts, and other stakeholder groups were incorporated into the creation of this document” [spoiler alert: most input was ignored], the Senators state:
“Cultural change and strategic planning to address these serious issues cannot be completed without the involvement of the entire maritime community.”
Please. Go back and read that quote a second time. Then think about what MARAD is doing. It is trying to address SASH using a voluntary regime that applies solely to Academy midshipmen during their Sea Years. MARAD is not trying to address SASH amongst the unlicensed ranks. It is not trying to address SASH by a licensed officer on an unlicensed mariner. It is not trying to address SASH by a licensed officer on a lower ranking officer. It is not even trying to address SASH committed against a state maritime school student who is sailing in the same billet on a commercial ship that was filled by an Academy midshipman before the Sea Year
You are not going to fix SASH in any industry by saying “We are going to protect the interns from SASH but not the rest of our employees.”
The Senators recognize that it is going to take the whole industry to address this problem and that is sooo close to the bulls eye. But there is an inherent assumption in the Senators’ admonition to MARAD that explains why MARAD has never succeeded in addressing SASH — it is the wrong agency for the job. I’ve never been shy about criticizing MARAD, but in this case, the reason MARAD cannot succeed in addressing SASH at sea is because it is completely outside of its mission. MARAD has a limited role to play in commercial shipping. It provides vital funding, to be sure, but it has almost no power to regulate the industry. It has no enforcement power over the industry. It has no role in staffing vessels (other than assigning cadets to berths aboard ships for sea training.) And, after training Academy midshipmen to become future licensed officers (and providing funding and support to state maritime schools to do the same with their students), with very limited exception, it has no further role in any licensed officer’s career.
Other than raising awareness on campus of the evils of SASH and trying to instill in future officers the importance of protecting all from SASH, there is very little MARAD can do. When MARAD becomes aware of a SASH allegation, it can work behind the scenes to try to get a shipping company and/or maritime union to address the problem. And by all reports that have reached me, when that outreach occurs, the companies and unions take it seriously. Because of privacy issues, of course, the steps that MARAD, the companies, and the unions take can rarely be publicized.
Unpublicized behind-the-scenes steps don’t generate headlines. MARAD exists in a political atmosphere and has to answer to the President, the Department of Transportation, and Congress. Thus, when a SASH incident becomes a political issue, there is tremendous pressure upon MARAD to show that it is doing something. When Midshipman X went public with her horrific account, MARAD’s initial reaction was not a knee-jerk, shut-down-Sea-Year reaction. Instead, it promised to take appropriate steps to address the safety of midshipmen and to make sure that input from midshipmen was “a part of any decisions that could potentially affect our Sea Year training program.” Some of that input, such as this letter from 18 female midshipman in the Classes of 2022 and 2023, urged against “removing us from what we strongly believe are the best training platforms for us.” But, four weeks later, the Secretary of Transportation (who was already being subjected to criticism for the DOT’s response to the supply chain crisis) received a letter from six Senators and Congressmen who gave their opinion that “the USMMA should not proceed with Sea Year this term.” Now MARAD was under pressure to show that it was taking action.
Unfortunately, MARAD has so few options for addressing SASH that when it needs to show action for political/media purposes, the only option that is readily available is to
stand down or pause cancel Sea Year with the caveat that Sea Year will resume when MARAD has come up with yet another bureaucratic protocol that it hopes it can persuade the shipping companies to voluntarily adopt. The stand down or pause cancellation punishes the entire class of victims and potential victims it is designed to protect. It does nothing to solve the problem of SASH within the industry and, if anything, diverts attention and resources away from addressing SASH on an industry-wide basis as shipping companies must suddenly devote huge resources to addressing the Sea Year pause cancellation.
And talk about missing the forest for the trees: The rape of Midshipman X was not evil because it happened to a midshipman. It was evil because it happened to a human being. We need to address SASH in the entire industry.
But, a Sea Year
pause cancellation allows MARAD to report to Congress and the media that it is addressing the problem. Let’s face it, in any bureaucratic hive such as MARAD, something that gets Congress and the media off of your back is a “solution.”
Now think of how perverse this “solution” is: Because MARAD’s response to SASH during Sea Year is to
stand down or pause cancel Sea Year, MARAD is creating a disincentive for a midshipman to come forward and report SASH to the Academy/MARAD. A midshipman victim knows that not only will s/he be victimized a second time by being denied Sea Year (and possibly a timely graduation), but also the reporting of SASH will likely harm another 400 or so midshipmen who are suddenly stranded without a Sea Year. MARAD’s “solution” of standing down or pausing cancelling Sea Year is horrible policy.
Contrast MARAD with the U.S. Coast Guard. The USCG has regulatory control over, and a duty to help safeguard, all crew members aboard a ship. It can adopt rules and regulations (after public comment, thereby ensuring all stakeholders can offer input) that govern ship board operations. It can prescribe procedures to be followed when someone aboard a ship reports a sexual assault (for example, procedures governing evidence collection; when and how SASH must be reported; and protection from retaliation). It has trained criminal investigators that it can quickly deploy to meet a ship anywhere in the world to investigate a crime and preserve evidence. The USCG’s law enforcement status and license disciplinary power lends immediate gravitas to any investigation it undertakes. The USCG has the regulatory and subpoena power to compel the maritime unions and shipping companies to cooperate. (Compelled cooperation is a good thing because it protects the unions and shipping companies from litigation for privacy breaches if they report a member or turn over evidence to the USCG because they are compelled to do so.) The USCG is ideally suited to be the exclusive agency for addressing SASH in the maritime industry. And, with the task assigned to the USCG instead of MARAD, midshipmen would no longer need to fear that reporting SASH would result in the draconian
“standing down” or “pausing” cancelling of Sea Year to the detriment of an entire class of victims and potential victims.
MARAD is the wrong agency for the job because it lacks the requisite power over the industry. Congress should require MARAD to stand down and it should direct the USCG to take charge and develop a plan that is designed to address SASH in the entire industry and protect all members of the industry from SASH.