Elite Rescue Swimmer Details Sexual Abuse in the U.S. Coast Guard Ranks
Sara Faulkner has landed on an iceberg, traveled to the equator and rescued dozens of people in the aftermath of shipwrecks and natural disasters.
As a retired aviation survival technician first class, she was the first and one of only three women to ever become a member of the U.S. Coast Guard’s elite swim rescue team. She gained national recognition for her heroism in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where she rescued 48 people in a single night in New Orleans.
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Faulkner is retired in West Palm Beach now, volunteering at an animal rescue in Jupiter Farms. After spending 20 years serving the Coast Guard, she’s speaking out about the sexual harassment and abuse she endured from one of her male supervisors.
“He would smack my rear, really hard in front of the guys in my rescue swimmer shop. And the guys would just look down because they weren’t really in a position to do anything,” said Faulkner.
Her supervisor, Albert Amescua, has denied those claims of abuse. We reached out to the Coast Guard for a comment about this story. We included their full statement on the a previous post from our initial conversation with Faulkner.
Faulkner transferred to multiple Coast Guard stations around the country, but the harassment followed no matter where she went. And she knows she’s not alone in this experience.
“Now that I’m speaking out, they’re coming out of the woodwork. [Other victims] came up to me crying, saying ‘thank you for you saying what’s happening to us. The world needs to know what happens to women and men.’”
Last December, the U.S. House Oversight and Homeland Security Committees presented a report which found the U.S.C.G’s leadership failed to conduct prompt and thorough investigations of bullying. Now Faulkner is calling on members of Congress to investigate systemic sexual harassment and abuse within the Coast Guard ranks.
WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with Faulkner on Sundial about her career, her struggles with PTSD from the sexual harassment and abuse she faced, and what hope she holds for change.
WLRN: When did you know you wanted to become a rescue swimmer?
FAULKNER: I knew that I wanted to be a rescue swimmer for the Coast Guard in my teens in high school. And I found out about the Coast Guard and rescue swimmers actually by going on a trip on a naval aircraft carrier and talking to the Navy rescue swimmers. And they told me, "Don't join the Navy if you want to be a rescue swimmer, join the Coast Guard." And then I looked into it and went on a training with the Coast Guard up in Northern California, and that was it. I was sold. But also one of the younger rescue swimmers, who was kind of cocky, made a point to tell me that there were no females who had ever made it through the rescue swimmers school. And that none probably ever would. And right then and there, I said, "Well, you just told that to the wrong person."
What do you think about when you look back on your rescues after Hurricane Katrina? You saved 48 people in one night. I know it's part of the training, but at the same time, it's almost superhuman, the stamina that you need physically and emotionally to handle that. What do you think about when you look back on that?
It really does come down to the type of person that makes it through rescue swimmers school. It's not all just about your swimming ability or how physically strong you are. You can be a great swimmer and, you know, be this big muscle-bound guy and quit. It comes down to your mental strength or your intestinal fortitude or whatever you want to call it, combined with our excellent training. So the two of those together are what make U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers the best when everything does go wrong or could go wrong. That rescue swimmer can still stay calm, if that makes sense.
What's the system for reporting sexual harassment and abuse in the Coast Guard?
They have policies, but whether or not they're used the right way, that's a whole different story. But basically, I reported it after a year and this was a year of basically choosing between the two evils. Do I let him sexually harass me and assault me? Or do I try to stand up to this really huge, very intimidating man and he'll stick me in the office and argue with me for three hours and make me cry and then make me feel like crap. And then ostracize me where nobody talks to me because I'm like, the pariah.
So then I finally couldn't take it anymore. And I reported it to the command. And he actually got booked on assault and the commanding officer of the unit told me the next day that I filed, "Don't worry, Sarah, we're gonna take care of everything. You're gonna be okay." Little did I know that he actually would go ride Harley's with the person that I filed a sexual harassment claim against. And they would hang out at each other's houses. So then it just turned into a smear campaign and [they] tried to make me look like a terrible performer. And then they actually tried to kick me out for a personality disorder that I was never diagnosed with.
What message do you have to young women who are considering the career path you took?
My message is, to women who are thinking about doing a job that's traditionally an all-male job, I don't really think it matters what it is, you are going to run into this obstacle that I did. That's just the nature of the beast, unfortunately. And I wish I could say it was different. I wish I could say that we've evolved past this problem, but we haven't. You need to think about whether or not that's worth it to you. Like I said, I had an amazing career, but the stuff that happened to me has really messed me up and I have got to work through that. So do you want to go through that as well? Maybe not to the extent I did. But it's something you need to consider for sure.