Elite swimmer’s wife said she was fondled at a Coast Guard party. He paid the price

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — As an elite Coast Guard rescue swimmer, Claude Morrissey racked up the honors, his exploits prominently on display in the Weather Channel’s television series “Coast Guard Alaska.”

The mountain-sized Morrissey was even named GEICO’S U.S. Military Person of the Year in 2013, honored in the nation’s capital.

But after 18 years of service and 14 medals, Morrissey’s career came crashing down after his wife, Elizabeth, reported that she was sexually assaulted in May 2016 by one of his superiors.

The Morrisseys maintain that retaliation followed, including being forcibly separated from his wife and kids for more than a month. A decorated rescue swimmer without a history of problems, Morrissey eventually went through a summary court-martial — a lower-level form of the military legal proceeding — for talking back to one of his superiors and kicking a desk.

Those who knew him say the seemingly minor infractions committed by a popular rescue swimmer were symptoms of the larger issue going on. He was furious over the inaction about inappropriate sexual advances on his wife and the threat of violence from a co-worker.

“They put Claude Morrissey and his family through hell, and it’s a crying shame,” said Troy Kalbach, who overlapped with Morrissey early in the latter’s career and retired after 30 years in the Coast Guard. “He is a good man. He has lived by the core (Coast Guard) values honor, respect and devotion to duty.”

The words of Kalbach — who says he bleeds blue, the Coast Guard color — carry weight. He retired as a command master chief, the most senior enlisted adviser at his unit in North Carolina and a liaison between enlisted personnel and the unit command officers.

“I truly think there was a cover-up,” Kalbach said.

The Morrissey incident highlights what those who watched it up close call an insular culture, one that protects its own up the command chain to Washington, D.C.

“The Coast Guard historically has been terrible about reprisals against people who report,” said a service member who was a chief petty officer during the Morrissey episode, knew the parties involved and witnessed it. “It is embedded in the culture. We’re going to close ranks and take care of ourselves, not this person who made themselves an outlier.”

The veteran service member spoke on condition of anonymity, concerned that being identified about a situation that “was extremely corrosive to the entire unit” could hurt the career of others. The service member confirmed the broad outlines of Morrissey’s accusations, notably that those he was supposed to turn to for help turned their backs on him.

Under Coast Guard rules, unwanted sexual contact must immediately be reported up the chain of command. Morrissey’s wife came forward to tell her story to McClatchy in hopes that it will shine light on a branch of the military that until recently had escaped the glare of the #MeToo movement.

“There is no closure for a victim. I feel like in the real world, there is help for victims,” said Elizabeth Morrissey. “In the Coast Guard, you keep your mouth shut, and keep your head down. You are not the victim. This didn’t happen to you, because this person is bigger than you. The command will keep your mouth shut. Your spouse gets retaliated against.”

Combined with recent critical reports about how the Coast Guard deals with sexual assault, hazing and retaliation at its prestigious academy, the Morrisseys embody a problem that escapes public view.

THE RIGHT STUFF

The smallest branch of the armed forces, the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security and numbers roughly 40,000 active-duty members.

Its elite rescue swimmers like Morrissey must pass rigorous testing at a special school in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and number around 300 on active duty. Paired with crews of mechanics and aviators, these small but essential rescue units make up about 3% of the Coast Guard.

The Morrisseys came forward to McClatchy late 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, detailing a culture of harassment, bullying and retaliation, caused a stir, partly because Adm. Karl Schultz, who heads the Coast Guard, declined to testify before Congress on it.

That report came on the heels of an armed forces survey last June about sexual harassment of cadets at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. The findings in December of the 18-month congressional investigation faulted faculty and leadership at the prestigious academy for failing to impartially address allegations of harassment and bullying. The report noted that “the processes used to address allegations apply to the entire Coast Guard.”

FALLING STAR

Morrissey, who now is 44, stands 6-foot-4 and in person seems half that wide. With a shaved head, he looks straight out of an old photograph from the bare-knuckle boxing days.

He joined the Coast Guard in 1998, thinking it would speed his path to becoming a New York City firefighter. He quickly realized he got seasick easily and instead set his sights on rescue swimming from helicopters.

“I am just inherently strong, and I have no fear of anything,” he said in an interview in Newport News, Virginia.

That strength and fearlessness was recognized by the service’s top leaders.

“We are really pleased to see Petty Officer Morrissey recognized for all that he does for the unit, the Coast Guard and the local community,” Cmdr. Michael Mullen, executive officer, Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, said in a 2013 statement announcing the Military Person of the Year recognition. “The few actions noted in the GEICO award are only a fraction of what he does and how he gets involved. He is a great asset to our command and will be greatly missed when he transfers this summer.”

Things were going well when, later that year, Morrissey transferred to North Carolina, where the elite rescue swimmer school is headquartered. He’d served in Alaska; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; and Houston, and was now back at the Aviation Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City.

The first few years of his service went fine, but the decorated Morrissey’s downfall began the weekend of May 21, 2016, a time that was supposed to be a celebration. In his 18th year of service, he’d just been told he’d be promoted to chief petty officer, the third-highest enlisted pay grade in the Coast Guard.

Morrissey said he arrived late to a colleague’s retirement party to find his wife, Elizabeth, being pawed by his boss, Master Chief Petty Officer John F. Hall, who she said grabbed her buttocks, lifted her up and was nuzzling on her neck.

“I am thinking, what did I do to prompt this? I can’t believe this just happened,” Elizabeth Morrissey said. “His wife was standing there, and I am thinking, ‘What did I do?’”

Claude later confronted Hall, but his wife never got a formal apology. Instead, Hall allegedly ordered Claude Morrissey to buy flowers for Hall’s wife to apologize for the disturbance, something that became one of the multiple charges against Hall in Hall’s eventual court-martial.

Elizabeth Morrissey reported the groping incident more than a year later in August 2017, after at first staying silent. She initially was worried about retaliation against her husband and the optics of the accusation, since Hall’s wife was said to be in ill health.

“The very next day after making my report, the retaliation against my family began,” she said in a statement that was included in Hall’s eventual court-martial proceedings. In September 2019, the groping incident became an additional charge brought against Hall, himself a decorated swimmer. That charge of “assault consummated by a battery” described how Elizabeth was subjected to unwanted “touching through the clothing her buttocks without her consent.”

The original incident set in motion a two-year series of events that ended two prestigious careers, with the popular Morrissey eventually being humiliated with assignment to menial duties such as painting pavement and cutting lawns.

THREATS IGNORED

The Hall incident coincided with another troubling event. Morrissey had complained to superiors in May 2017 about a threat allegedly made against him by Roger Chivers, one of the first graduates of the rescue-swimmer program, who now worked under Morrissey as a contractor conducting survival training at the base.

Chivers left an unauthorized magazine clip from a Glock handgun on Morrissey’s desk. It followed an earlier incident where he’d allegedly told an active duty service member he was going to put a bullet in Morrissey.

Interviewed by Coast Guard investigators, Chivers insisted he was joking about the threat, and said he intended to sell the gun clip to Morrissey, a fellow enthusiast, despite the fact that the two men were not getting along.

When Morrissey complained, nothing was done immediately. Morrissey’s superiors even invited Chivers to attend a ceremonial dinner with Morrissey.

Only after Morrissey began acting out in frustration did the command start looking into matters, resulting in the contractor being removed from the base and eventually being banned. Police later advised Morrissey to seek a protective order against Chivers after he parked near Morrissey’s home and left a strange message a few doors down written in garden mulch. It read: “Roger was here, Lov You.”

All the while, inaction by superiors allowed both incidents to fester and relationships to deteriorate.

A chain of emails, and the Coast Guard’s own investigation, depicts the preventable escalation. Some of this email traffic reached Washington headquarters, and a rear admiral, Keith Smith, and the Coast Guard’s top enlisted service member, Steve Cantrell, were both involved in the back-and-forth.

During this period, Morrissey and Hall took out military protective orders against each other. Then came a verbal confrontation when Morrissey believed Hall had violated the protective order by approaching Morrissey’s son at a school event. Hall denied it, drove off and Morrissey sped after him. That resulted in Morrissey’s detention and his eventual confinement in barracks away from his family for 44 days, under what Kalbach and others view as unfairly one-sided punishment. Elizabeth was left to fend for four kids as she started a nursing job.

“I don’t feel the Coast Guard ever treated me as a victim, not once,” said Elizabeth. “They’ve done a lot of damage to us.”

Then the Coast Guard sought a court-martial of Morrissey, not for violence or poor moral character, but for being “disrespectful” to superiors who were not acting on his complaints about the touching of his wife and the threats from the co-worker. Morrissey agreed to a summary court-martial, a lower level of military punishment that did not follow him into the civilian world. He was able to retire with a clean slate at his current rank, but gave up a career he loved.

“My husband reacted the way they wanted him to … they had just enough to hang over his head,” said Elizabeth. “And they knew what they were doing when they did that.”

VIDEO ILLUMINATES

If the events seem difficult to follow, let alone prove, a videotaped interrogation by agents from the Coast Guard Investigative Services, CGIS, lays bare the scope of the alleged retaliation.

In the video shared with McClatchy, investigator Denise Anderson calmly picks apart Command Master Chief Destry Witthaus, who supervised both Morrissey and his boss, Hall. She spells out to Witthaus how Hall, removed from Morrissey’s chain of command after the initial complaint, remained in constant contact with Witthaus and seemed to drive the response from the command leaders.

“It just looks like all of you are trying to keep this under wraps,” Anderson tells him, chiding Witthaus for seeming indifference when Morrissey texted him that a superior had inappropriately touched his wife.

And when Hall later suggests to Witthaus sending Morrissey for psychological evaluation, documents show there is no pushback from the superior and it eventually happens.

“What kills me is he has already told you someone is inappropriately touching his wife,” Anderson tells Witthaus in a more than two-hour-long interrogation. “I don’t know about you, but I would probably be losing my faculties at that point.”

In fact, Hall’s statement of charges in his court-martial includes accusations of four other incidents of inappropriate touching of Morrissey’s wife, raised during the eventual investigation. Hall entered into a pretrial plea agreement in late 2018, acknowledging just a single case of sexual touching of Elizabeth Morrissey in the original incident.

At another point in the CGIS interrogation, Witthaus admits he doesn’t really know how to handle sex assault complaints.

“Do you take the training every year?” Anderson asks incredulously, adding, “This looks like the command is corralling (circling) the wagons.”

Emails sent during the investigation show much the same. In one dated Aug. 11, 2017, Witthaus seems to look right past the concerns raised by Morrissey.

“In my professional opinion, I feel Chief Morrissey is completely uncontrollable at this point and he needs to be held accountable for falsely accusing a high-ranking, highly decorated, and highly respected Master Chief,” Witthaus wrote to executive officer Timothy L. Schmitz. “His behavior is unacceptable and needs to be addressed immediately.”

Witthaus declined comment, citing legal stipulations required of him when the Morrissey complaint was resolved.

In the civilian world, Morrissey or his wife would have had numerous legal avenues available. Not so in the military, where command is given broad discretion about how to resolve accusations. Commanders can weigh punitive action against cohesion of, and unity in, the units they lead.

As a career rescue swimmer, Morrissey couldn’t just up and quit. He’d lose the ability to keep accruing military retirement benefits, and his job as a helicopter rescue swimmer isn’t easy to replicate in the private sector.

Morrissey now owns a tree removal business, and his wife wants Congress or the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, where Morrissey had also taken his complaint, to investigate what the couple considers coordinated retaliation by the Coast Guard.

“Nobody got in trouble for doing the wrong thing. I am disgusted that my husband was part of the Coast Guard for 20 years,” Elizabeth said, the emotions still raw.

The Morrisseys story did not surprise 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.”

“It’s painfully clear that the damage wasn’t contained to the destroyed careers of these dedicated Guardsmen, all of whom excelled in their elite field until they came forward, but the very heart and soul of these brave individuals as well as their families,” she said. “Their accounts demand swift and exhaustive congressional scrutiny. Those responsible for these injustices must be held to account.”

The Coast Guard’s chief spokesman, Capt. Anthony Russell, stressed the Chivers incident and Hall incident are separate matters. He said they were handled properly and in any event do not suggest any sort of broader problem in the Coast Guard.

“The Coast Guard conducted thorough investigations,” Russell said of Morrissey’s two issues involving Hall and Witthaus. “These investigations resulted in the convening of separate courts-martial for each member, at which the subjects pled guilty to violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and were sentenced appropriately in accordance with the law and military justice policy and procedures.”

In the end, Hall left the Coast Guard and Witthaus did so also — after he was reassigned.

Morrissey’s lawyer during court-martial proceedings, former Marine Corps officer Paul Murray, said the Coast Guard and the armed forces more broadly continue working through a clash of cultures between younger and older service members

“Older guys did things a certain way, socialized a certain way,” said Murray, based out of Savannah, Georgia. “The military does not need more training on sexual assault or harassment. What the military needs is training on what is ‘professionalism’ in the workplace.”

For colleagues such as Kalbach — who overlapped with Morrissey in Cape Cod, Kodiak and Elizabeth City — the chain of events that ended the career of a storied swimmer shouldn’t have happened.

“He would be one of the guys who would never hesitate to put his life on the line. He was the real deal,” Kalbach said of Morrissey. “It was a failure from Day One.”

And for his wife, Elizabeth, there is the anger over becoming a victim and then again as she wrestles with feelings of guilt over what happened to her husband.

“He lost a brotherhood. Rescue swimmers are a small community, and he lost that,” she said. “He lost that the second the investigation started.”

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(Jessica Koscielniak contributed to this report.)

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