April 14th, 2020
A Military Service Whistleblower’s Story
Conversations With A Coast Guard Whistleblower
by Kelly Richmond Pope, Forbes, April 13, 2020
Meet Dr. Kimberly Young-McLear
1. When did you know that you had to blow the whistle?
After enduring workplace bullying and harassment for two years with no relief informally from the command, in fact just the opposite, I ultimately decided to elevate my complaints to have a formal investigation into my allegations. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard assigned a biased and an unqualified investigator who had an existing working relationship with my perpetrator. The command, led by two Admirals, then subjected me to another humiliating investigation, violating my privacy while the harassment escalated, where they again assigned another biased and unqualified investigator who had a working relationship with the perpetrator. The results of the investigation delivered to me by the command, including an Admiral was extremely intimidating and they told me that the results were “unsubstantiated.” As the psychological toll on me mounted and relationships turned against me for coming forward, I experienced suicide ideation at my lowest point after the two years of abuse, not feeling believed, and socially isolated. I knew that if I was experiencing these there were many others that were also. To make an analogy, there would be enough people who the reporting systems and chain of command failed to fill up an aircraft carrier. I made an intentional decision that if I was strong enough to speak up again then I would. I knew I had to blow the whistle when I realized that the issues were pervasive and systemic and that powerful individuals (Two Admirals) in the Coast Guard were intentionally abusing their power to sweep allegations under the rug and protect bullies. I knew it was our leadership that created toxic culture and that the toxic culture would continue to create more leaders emulating those behaviors. I spoke up to do my part to break the cycle. It’s a culture that impacts thousands of people in the Coast Guard, and many serve in silence, many suffer a severe psychological toll, or they are otherwise pushed out of the service and the cycle continues.
2. Tell me about your job/responsibilities?
I am a cybersecurity professional and engineer in the Coast Guard. I am an active duty Coast Guard service member, and am currently detailed to the Dept of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). CISA is responsible for protecting the Nation’s critical infrastructure from physical and cyber threats.
3. How did your upbringing impact your decision to blow the whistle?
I was raised by two immigrant parents from Trinidad and Tobago. They both served almost 30 years each in the US Air Force. My parents taught me about ethics, compassion, and integrity. In my youth, I spent a lot of time in libraries learning about civil rights and social movements. They taught me to be observant and to intervene. Growing up around military bases I would interact with veterans from Vietnam, many were Black men, and I began to sense and understand that society seemed to discard older generations who have served and sacrificed. I internalized a sense of compassion and desire to want to pursue public service in part to honor their sacrifices as with the sacrifices of civil rights activists all the way to the atrocities that my ancestors endured from the Coasts of West Africa. This was reinforced when I studied at Florida A& M University, where I learned more about systemic racism. When I decided to blow the whistle after two years as a professor at the Coast Guard Academy, I reached a point when I decided “no more” not just for myself but for those whose voices and stories will never be known but also for our future generations who deserve better.
4. Who was most proud of you standing up and who was more disappointed in you standing up?
My family, other survivors, and ethical and compassionate colleagues and my students were the most proud. After I spoke up, it was revealed that 7 Admirals, 2 SES, several Captains, the legal staffs, and others despite having direct knowledge of my allegations of bullying, harassment, and discrimination, used their power to protect those who harmed me. The senior leadership of the Coast Guard continues to marginalize and silence me to this day. The Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schultz, declined to provide me a formal written apology, meet with me to discuss ways in which our service can improve, and declined to hold anybody accountable for violating our core values, policies, and the Military Whistleblower Protection Act. I can only surmise that his lack of public appearance at the Congressional Hearing on Dec 11, 2019 and the above declinations, that he is the most disappointed that I stood up for a better Coast Guard and better military.
5. What policies have changed (or would you like to see changed) based on you speaking up?
My case closed loopholes in how bullying and harassment allegations are investigated and required mandatory training for all Coast Guard members. My case also pushed the need for qualified investigators. My case and what I brought forward also inspired new legislation proposed for sexual assault prevention and developing cultural competency in the Coast Guard. I am not convinced, however, that these abuses will cease due to these intuitive policy improvements. The Coast Guard has not internalized why my case occurred in the first place. The Coast Guard is hoping this simply goes away, while people across the service continue to be bullied, harassed, and discriminated against in toxic work environments. The primary demographics of people who experience toxic work environments in the Coast Guard are ethical people who speak up, LGBTQ+, Women, People of Color, Black people. I would like to see my case used as a case study for people to understand what specifically were the driving factors about our culture that led to the actions of two 4 star Commandants, Vice Commandants, Admirals responsible for Human Resources as leadership, Senior Executives leading the Civil Rights Directorates at the Coast Guard and Dept of Homeland Security, their legal staffs, and others charged with leading our military service academy. Toxic environments and lack of trust in senior military leadership is a national security threat.
6. Did you experience any depression? If so, how did you deal with this?
I experienced depression and anxiety caused by the toxic work environment. I dealt with it my informing my medical physicians and being open about my feelings with my wife and close friends. At my lowest point I had suicide ideation. I eventually realized that the senior leadership of the Coast Guard didn’t actually care about me as a human being, and displayed a level of animosity towards me I had never experienced before. I knew that I had to focus instead on how I could use my voice to show others that they always matter, even if the culture within the Coast Guard mistreated them like I was mistreated. One of the reasons I was bullied over was the quality of my PhD research. One of the proudest moments in my career was seeing 100 students at the Coast Guard Academy leverage my PhD research during Hurricane Harvey and Irma and we ultimately received an award for Innovation. I knew that I could use my voice in a variety of ways to reach and uplift others experiencing bullying or other demeaning behaviors in the Coast Guard and in society at large. I decided how and when I would use my voice. My resilience was a byproduct of my upbringing and recommitment to myself that I would not allow any organization to destroy the essence of who I am – a compassionate, loving, and ethical human being who is driven to serve others.
7. How did your colleagues treat you after you spoke up?
Colleagues that were ethical and compassionate were incredibly brave and supportive as many of them were singled out or marginalized for speaking out about my case. My students were supportive, appreciative, and think I’m a “badass.” Colleagues that were bystanders and not ethical or compassionate distanced themselves further, minimized my case, and made excuses for the leadership of the Coast Guard. Some continued to silence me even further. Some people spread rumors behind my back that I was the problem and must have just been a poor performer.
8. What advice can you offer to others who are thinking about blowing the whistle? What type of advice did you receive during this process?
If you decide to blow the whistle: My advice would be reflect on who you are at your core and stay absolutely grounded on why you are coming forward. Know that how your organization may be mistreating you is their problem. Make sure you also have strong emotional support and of necessary financial support at home or amongst your closest relationships. The best advice I received from a friend who is in the LGBTQ+ community was “Be Loud.” I recall asking her “how loud?” She only responded “be loud.” I was left to my own imagination of redefining what it means to Truly serve as my authentic self when faced with being witness to a series of unimaginable atrocities hiding in plain sight.
9. Are you still employed in the same group? If so, how is that working out?
I am still employed by the Coast Guard. I am active duty. I’m very proud to still be in a position to contribute to our missions that impact the Dept of Homeland Security in a way that is innovative and authentic. There will always be people, including many who are of my same race, gender, or sexual orientation that distance themselves from me and from other truth tellers. But that’s their choice. My Choice is to keep being loud. Sometimes just existing and thriving as an unapologetically Black lesbian is the loudest action I can take.
10. What the next for you? Looking 3 years out?
My case was the last civil rights investigation in Congressman Elijah Cummings lifetime. I’m appreciative of all of the Congressional oversight into the Coast Guard on the House and Senate. The next three years for me will include working with survivors, whistleblowers, and advocacy groups to shed light on the inequities within the military and highlighting the bravery of anyone that has the moral courage to do what is right. Whistleblowers take extraordinary risks to expose failures and wrongdoing, but they also can help redeem the soul of our nation. Whistleblowing, after all, is rooted in the formation of our country, a necessity deemed by the founding fathers.
Tags: abusive work environments, Admiral Karl Schultz, Coast Guard, Congressman Elijah Cummings, Department of Homeland Security, health harm, Kimberly Young-McLear, toxic environments, whistleblower, workplace bullying
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