EditorialHealthOpinionPersonalPsychology

Gaslight Reboot: my experience with sexual harassment as a member of the US Coast Guard

Skyla Luckey (center in glasses) graduating from Coast Guard recruit to Coast Guard Seaman at USCG Tracen Center Cape May, New Jersey. Photo courtesy of Skyla Luckey.

Part I

When Ingrid Bergman was manipulated and harassed by her husband Charles Boyer in the film Gaslight, American audiences viewed the film with curiosity and disgust. But in the process, the curtain of deception and deceit that can exist in interpersonal relations between men and women was effectually drawn away from the eyes of the public.

I am a United States Coast Guard veteran, and the reason I chose to serve isn’t entirely because I wanted to serve my country. I enlisted at 25 with a background in spotlight-celebrity type jobs.

At 20, I had worked in Jackson, Mississippi, as a radio personality for iHeartMedia, and I also wrote for an alternative newsweekly, the Jackson Free Press. In small markets like Jackson, jobs like that will bring you local fame because the public treats you with celebrity status. I loved the attention but I didn’t like the cocky attitude I had developed from all that attention. In my head, I would say, “How do I change this about me? I don’t like this cocky trait I’ve developed. I’m a turnoff to myself.”

Two years after working in Jackson, I moved to Jacksonville, Florida, and worked as news bureau chief for the former Metro Networks and wrote for an alternative newsweekly, Folio Weekly. At this point in my life, I had toned my cocky attitude down, but I still had cocky feelings and thoughts. I wasn’t any happier with myself. For a year-and-a-half, I contemplated getting out of my spotlight career because how was I going to lose the cocky feelings and thoughts that sometimes still arose because of what I did for a living? I needed a job that focused on helping others. I needed a job that didn’t shine the spotlight back on me. I became a 9-1-1 operator with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

That was the toughest job I’d ever had because all I wanted to do was jump out of my cubicle and beat the living daylights out of the perpetrators, murderers and thieves that our officers responded to. After about nine months of this job, I had to make my next career move. I knew that I couldn’t go back to radio or anything with a spotlight feel because I had done a good job of diminishing those cocky feelings and thoughts. I wanted to stay in the business of helping people. I was done with performing. It wasn’t who I was supposed to be because all I would be is a performer with a cocky attitude.

I enlisted in the United States Coast Guard and on July 14, 2009, arrived on a bus with 70-something other recruits in front of Sexton Hall at USCG Tracen Center Cape May in New Jersey. Men whose facial expressions and body language that reminded me of a pit bull’s stormed into the bus and yelled at us to get off the bus as quickly as possible. Our company was Alfa-182.

It’s common sense that basic training isn’t easy, but it makes every challenging moment worth it in those eight weeks when you are a family as we were. We were 70-something strangers from different parts of the United States and the shared connection we had as a whole was a blessing. We genuinely cared about each other and gave our hearts to each other. Our three company commanders were a great team and, underneath the yelling and scolding, they shared that connection. They believed in us, and they wanted to see us succeed. We didn’t turn our backs on each other in the toughest of tough times. We supported each other.

I had a moment of sadness the day before we graduated because I didn’t want us to graduate. I wanted to stay in basic training forever with Alfa-182 because of the closeness we shared. The love that I felt for my shipmates and for the Coast Guard caused me to think that this was the lifelong career for me. I couldn’t have been more incorrect. I had no inkling about the type of people I would soon encounter.

Skyla Luckey as an iHeartMedia traffic reporter in Tampa. Photo courtesy of Skyla Luckey.

In September 2009, I reported to Coast Guard Station Yankeetown (CG STA Yankeetown)  in Yankeetown, Florida. With the male herding mentality at this station, I might as well have shown up barefoot and pregnant with tape over my mouth. During my first two weeks, they were friendly towards me. At the time I thought there weren’t any ulterior motives behind those smiles and those friendly attitudes. However, one of the few female shipmates told me behind closed doors to watch my back because there had been females stationed there in the recent past that were sleeping with the male shipmates, so they probably expected that kind of sexual behavior from me. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Three weeks after I arrived at CG STA Yankeetown, one of my female shipmates from Alfa 182 arrived. I looked forward to us serving at the same station because she showed leadership qualities in basic training and had a grounded type of personality. We would also live together in government housing. I imagined we’d hang out together, study Coast Guard qualifications together and have each other’s back in case anything bad happened. Once again, I was wrong.

Williams arrived and the male shipmates transferred their attention to their new sexual target.  This is when don’t ask, don’t tell was still in. What these shipmates didn’t know is that Williams was a lesbian in a fully committed relationship with a woman. Her girlfriend would drive to our apartment on Williams’ off days and they’d shack up in her bedroom the whole time. If anyone had the scoop it was me because I lived with her. But I wasn’t going to out her in the Coast Guard by tapping on their shoulders and saying, “You’re wasting your time.”

She was beautiful. She had an attractive body and didn’t have the stereotypical 2009 lesbian look. I really didn’t either because I have feminine features. I had short hair and dressed tomboyish when I wasn’t in Coast Guard uniform. But close-minded individuals that can’t see past their colleagues’ gender and lack of objectivity and compassion cannot be expected to respond in a professional and ethical manner.

What had begun as male shipmates who congenially and willingly answered my questions about material pertaining to mandatory Coast Guard qualifications that I studied turned into male shipmates who ignored my questions. In the same breath, they’d turn right to Williams and ask, “So, Williams, are you understanding things so far in the boat crew guide? Let’s sit over here for a second and go over some of these boat crew qualifications.”

It was a late afternoon as I sat on the smoke deck with a male shipmate who chain-smoked. I didn’t have anything to say to him or anybody. My upbeat morale had disappeared into a dark hole. I just sat there on a wooden bench and he sat there enjoying his cigarette. He inhaled a deep puff of smoke, slowly let it out and he looked at me and said, “Luckey, I don’t like the way they treat you. They have a bet going to see who can get inside of Williams’ pants first, and the running joke at the station is ‘Well, we don’t know what Luckey is so there’s no need in helping her with qualifications.’ That’s why they’ve started acting like this towards you. They’re trying to gain Williams’ trust so they can take advantage of her. That’s why they’re not helping you anymore.”

 

 

After he said that, I allowed every word he said to sink in. Because they suspected that I was a lesbian, they refused to help with my qualifications. Because of my perceived sexual orientation which meant that there would be no opportunity to sleep with me, they refused to help me with my qualifications. Was this really happening? How were they allowed entry into the United States Coast Guard:  a military branch that has a core mission to save lives. I thought that’s what I was going to be a part of, an organization that cared about people. How was I going to handle this treatment? How was I going to put a stop to it? I’d already started documenting on paper the behavior and treatment towards myself and other females that I had witnessed from them. I didn’t know what I was going to do with that documentation, but I did know that I was going to keep documenting everything.

I thought Williams would want to fight back with me as we figured out how to put these shipmates in their place. I told her about the bet they had going. She looked at me like I was crazy. She didn’t believe me. Of course she didn’t believe me because the game of deception and machinations they’d orchestrated was falling in their favor because they’d already begun to gain her trust. I thought she’d at least be upset by their unethical behavior towards me, towards her, but she wasn’t. She started to avoid me. As hurtful and upsetting as this was, I wasn’t going to back down. I was still going to be loyal to her and protect her in whatever way I could. I was going to stand up and see that something was done about all of this. I had no idea where to begin. I just kept documenting everything.

I had no one to turn to. I didn’t have a family to go home to for comfort at the end of a hostile, mentally abusive shift. I didn’t have a significant other to show me love or tell me that I mattered in this life. All I had to go home to was a shipmate who I once considered family who did whatever she could to not cross paths with me in our shared apartment. Her bedroom door was always closed. A shipmate who hid behind her closed door with her significant other who helped her ignore the problems that happened at CG STA Yankeetown. I couldn’t understand it. How could she turn her cheek the other way and not speak up with me? The more voices the better. Didn’t she understand the power of that? I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I played pretend about all this. What about the future generations of Coasties? If these individuals were allowed to renew their contracts and transfer to a new duty station, then their unethical behavior could cause a Coastie to crumble and possibly drive them to suicide or to have a nervous breakdown. I had to protect them from these vultures. No chance in hell they would continue to get away with this on my watch.

Part II

About a week after the chain-smoking shipmate informed me of his disgust, the OINC (person in charge) Senior Chief Stalls called me into his office.
 
“Luckey, I like that you’re at this station. Your upbeat attitude and high morale is what we’ve been needing here. Lately, I’ve noticed that you’re not as peppy as when you first arrived. Did something happen?”
 
I couldn’t speak. All I saw were glimpses of the future. Images of retaliation from my shipmates flashed into my mind. It was like a film played in my head of everything that would happen if I spoke up and that included my Coast Guard career short-lived.
 
“Luckey, if something happened then you need to tell me so that we can address the issue. I’m worried about you. Your personality is not what I first saw when you arrived so I know that something has happened.”
 
Nothing came out of my mouth. I stared into his eyes and didn’t move a muscle as I sat across from him for what seemed like an eternity. He stared back into my eyes posed like a statue as he waited. Finally, I spoke up.
 
“The reason my personality has changed is because no one is helping me with my qualifications since Williams arrived. I was informed by a shipmate that they have bets going to see who could get inside of Williams’ pants first so they are doing everything they can to gain her trust so they can take advantage of her. They also suspect that I’m a lesbian so they don’t see a reason for helping me since I wouldn’t benefit them sexually. They’re also discriminating against me because of the back problems that I’ve been dealing with since basic training.”
 
There. I said it. I wasn’t going to lie to this man’s face and tell him everything was fine. He told me that he was sorry that this had happened and that he’d have a talk with the individuals I listed. Great. I expected full retaliation to follow immediately after, and the evil glares they shot in my direction after their “talk” confirmed that.  Documented.

Skyla Luckey practicing archery in the Coast Guard. Photo courtesy of Skyla Luckey.

After the talk, it was 11 months of isolation, discrimination and harassment. They said comments such as “You’re a broken dick who doesn’t contribute anything to the Coast Guard,” even though I was the best watch stander that station ever had. They’d say that my pussy wasn’t fit for anyone because I was nothing but a lesbian. They’d look at me and tell me they hated me. I remained professional and greeted them with good mornings and they greeted me with an evil glare in return. All documented.
 
They made sure to isolate me from activities that would build camaraderie and lift station morale as a whole. On every sports day, they’d make me sit at the station by myself to stand watch as the whole station went to a softball field in a nearby town to play softball for the majority of the day. Documented.
 
They found out about my injured back during my first week there because I sat out a volleyball game to protect myself. They purposely made me do work that caused extraneous stress on my back. I’d have to unload heavy items and tote them up three flights of stairs. They made sure they assigned anything to me that continued to aggravate my injured spine, and as a result, there were multiple trips taken to the nearest ER. After I returned from the ER they’d put me right back to work continuing the same physical activity that sent me to the ER. Documented.
 
To think that these were the kind of people who responded to boaters in distress appalled me. To think that these were the kind of people that civilians trusted with their lives. I wouldn’t trust them with a dime.  
 
They wanted me out of there because they knew I had a voice. I was out on the smoke deck one morning and one of the culprits said to me, “You know, Luckey, the Coast Guard is currently short on operation specialists so you could probably go straight to OS A-school.”
 
“Yeah, but I haven’t met all of my qualifications at this station and SC Stalls said we can’t put our names on an A-school list until we meet all of our qualifications.” At the rate I was at with the overwhelming guidance and encouragement I’d spend my whole Coast Guard career at CG STA Yankeetown as a non-rate. I couldn’t teach myself about boat crew duties and qualify myself because you had to have a dozen sign-offs from the enlisted chumps. They were doing everything they could to keep me behind and everything they could to make sure Williams understood everything.
 
I did want to get out of there and put Yankeetown behind me so I asked Stalls if I could attend OS A-school. His answer is what I expected. No. I had to work towards those qualifications.
 
The games continued and that contributed to more back injuries and excruciating back pain. I had a bulging disc on the lower left side of my back. I had scoliosis also. The physical, emotional and mental pain eventually beat me into a deep dark tunnel with no sign of light at the end. This was my life. I was in a four-year contract with life, and I couldn’t walk away and create a new life for myself. I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t continue.What was the purpose? I was just trying to turn myself into a better person, but it felt like a mistake. It was in the loneliest, cruelest and coldest place.
 
I wrote a suicide note to my mom. I explained that I couldn’t deal with the situation alone anymore and that this is what I had to look forward to for the next four years. I couldn’t do it any longer. Four years from now, I’d still be at CG STA Yankeetown waiting to get qualified while seeing people for what they really were. Tears dropped from my eyes onto the paper as I sat in my room and neatly wrote my goodbye note. I signed: Take care. I love you. Love, Skyla. I was about to overdose when my cell phone rang. It was my mom. I was already being selfish by taking her daughter away from her so I figured I could at least answer the phone so she could hear my voice for the last time.
 
“Hello,” I said.
 
“Skyla,” she said crying tears of loss and devastation. “Isaac killed himself.”
 

Continue: click here to read Parts III and IV of “Gaslight Reboot: my experience with sexual harassment as a member of the US Coast Guard.”

 
 
 
TagsLuckey

1 comment

  1. Jane 29 November, 2017 at 19:45 Reply

    I was so angry but touched by Skyla’s story.
    I want to read the rest of her story.
    I am so sorry for everything this strong woman has
    had to endure. I don’t want her to give in to these insensitive jerks.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *