Sexual harassment

The number of sexual harassment reports in the Coast Guard and the amount of complaints determined to be valid in the past two fiscal years:

2013

18

(13 substantiated)

2012

19

(13 substantiated)

Source: U.S. Coast Guard

Omar Martin Gomez got married in a vineyard overlooking the Missouri River.

Sexual assaults

The number of sexual assault reports in the Coast Guard for the past five years, including "restricted" reports in which the alleged victim doesn't want a criminal investigation. Statistics broken down by ship were not immediately available:

2013

216

2012

156

2011

88

2010

65

2009

70

Source: U.S. Coast Guard

It was Halloween 2009. The grape leaves were yellow.

He wore black and she, white.

Gomez was in the Coast Guard. Jennica, his new wife, was a flight attendant for Delta.

They exchanged vows and walked over rose petals to a banquet hall. They fed each other cake.

On their first anniversary, they dressed in Halloween costumes. He was a zombie and she, the cartoon character Pikachu.

They took a trip to Paris and saw the Mona Lisa. They flew to London and rode a double-decker bus.

By their second Christmas together, their first daughter was born.

Jennica Gomez thought their life was ordinary. She didn't know about the other life her husband led as a Coast Guard petty officer second class - one that cost him his job, his career and his freedom.

His sexual teasing and touching of women under his command resulted in a court-martial earlier this month, when he was convicted of violating five military laws, including aggravated sexual contact. He was sent to prison for eight years.

His behavior was part of a culture that was more the norm than an aberration for the Charleston-based ship he served on. His shipmates' testimony during the trial, coupled with The Post and Courier's interviews of people with stakes in the saga, depict that world on the cutter Gallatin.

The newspaper hasn't named the seven women who testified because they are victims of sex crimes.

That culture has festered aboard the Gallatin, on other ships and at some of the Coast Guard's 400 stations worldwide, observers said, because women in the service have few resources nearby to report abuse. Members in Charleston must call an office 600 miles away.

While it's a reputation that officials want to leave in the past, some congressional measures to address sexual assaults in the military won't apply to the Coast Guard, because it is not under the Defense Department's control.

Omar Gomez, 35, was the first Coast Guardsman from the Gallatin to face consequences. Though agents said they spent time on the vessel and investigated several shipmates, they charged only one other with violations of military law. A commissioned lieutenant is expected to face a court-martial in March.

Gomez and his wife moved to Charleston in 2011, when he was assigned to the Gallatin. Many young seamen cut their teeth on the aging ship, and he fell into the role as one of its most senior petty officers.

Women under his command who eventually came forward complained that Gomez took the salacious behavior common on the ship to the next level.

Guys often slapped guys on the buttocks. Women punched women in the genitals. They exchanged jokes about sex. Shipmates drew penises on fellow sailors' hats when they were left unattended.

By one woman's estimate, 85 percent of the crew somehow participated.

Gomez zeroed in on women inferior in rank to him.

He exposed his private parts, the accusers testified. He sent text messages about sex. He cornered women and fondled them.

"I don't see a difference between girls and guys on a boat," he would later tell federal agents. "If I slap a girl's ass, I'd slap a guy's ass. I treat girls and guys the same."

Rooting out such behavior through training and support systems is a top priority for Coast Guard leaders. Reports of sex assault in the Coast Guard have more than tripled in the past five fiscal years, from 70 in 2009 to 216 in 2013, according to Lt. Cmdr. Jamie Frederick, a regional spokesman.

"We volunteered to hold ourselves to a higher standard," Frederick said. "We will accept no less and hold our people accountable if they fail to meet this standard."

To fit in, the women tolerated Gomez until one got fed up, told an officer and eventually gave testimony crucial to his conviction.

The behavior had continued even after Coast Guard officials learned about a civilian's accusation that Gomez raped her in West Ashley. They didn't start a criminal probe, Frederick told The Post and Courier, because an officer who learned of the rape allegation didn't accurately tell a supervisor about it.

After that miscommunication, Gomez continued serving on the boat.

'Who he really was'

In 2009, Gomez already had two children from a previous relationship when he met Jennica Francisco in a bar in Panama City Beach, Fla., where he was training. The New Jersey native who grew up in Puerto Rico had been in the Coast Guard for more than five years.

Nine years younger than Gomez, Francisco lived in Columbia, Mo. She was visiting her sister when she met him.

"I was drinking," said his wife, now 26. "One of the first things I said to him was, 'I think we'd make cute babies.'"

A few weeks later, they decided to give marriage a shot.

But their relationship started to crumble even before their wedding. They fought. She saw him as a misogynist.

"He told me how bad of a mom I was, how bad of a wife I was," she said. "He always thought I should be in the kitchen when he got home."

In their first nine months together, they lived near Norfolk, Va., where the Coast Guard's mid-Atlantic area is based. They relocated to Charleston in 2011.

She left when they separated a year later, only to return for a summer-long visit in 2012 and get pregnant with their second daughter.

The couple still didn't get along, but Jennica Gomez never saw her husband as the sexual predator that authorities later said he was.

He told her in a text message that he had been accused of rape, but cleared of wrongdoing.

"A lot of people thought he was cool and fun," she said. "I don't think I knew who he really was."

His court-martial began Dec. 2 without her knowing.

'A good leader'

To the authorities who looked into his career, signs of trouble popped up not long after Omar Gomez finished boot camp. But they dropped a charge he had faced in connection with a 2006 incident on the Polar Star, a Seattle-based icebreaker.

Five years later, in mid-2011, he found himself leading a team of 30 members who kept the deck of the Gallatin neat and clean.

Gomez was admired when it came to advising his crew.

One female seaman wanted to achieve the qualifications to be a master helmsman. He made that happen. When another complained that a shipmate didn't shower enough, he settled their tiff. When Gomez assigned tasks, he helped his underlings scrape paint or scrub rust off the 43-year-old Gallatin.

"He was a good leader," said Seaman Stephen Humphrey, who served under him. "He was very hands-on."

The encounters that led to criminal charges came early during his first patrol in mid-2011.

When the ship was docked in Mayport, Fla., a woman said he shoved her camera into his pants and snapped pictures.

During the 76-day mission, the crew seized 2,000 pounds of cocaine from smugglers on the Caribbean Sea.

When they returned that December, Gomez celebrated with two female seamen he supervised. They ate dinner at a sushi restaurant in North Charleston.

Afterward, they stopped at a sex shop. He offered to buy lingerie or sex toys for the women. He picked out a pornographic film for himself.

At his home, they played Ring of Fire, an alcohol-drinking game. Gomez encouraged sexual contact between the women, they said, and approached one of them as she walked out of a bathroom.

He drank too much, so the seamen left.

'Can't get away'

Two months later, on Feb. 24, 2012, Gomez was drinking heavily again.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Frankie Rubio, a friend since their days together on the Polar Star, spent eight hours with Gomez at a bar. They gulped vodka, tequila and warm beer. They left when they were invited to a party in West Ashley.

Gomez held a red cup with rum and cola as he walked into the apartment.

Current and former Coast Guardsmen were there. Gomez met the civilian girlfriend of his host, a seaman who had served under him on the Gallatin.

The woman, 19, said she wasn't feeling well. She and her boyfriend took the sleeping medicine ZzzQuil and went to bed.

Gomez and Rubio drank more and played beer pong with the others.

"I was not looking for sex," Gomez later told investigators. "I was drunk."

They soon tired and went to sleep in the living room.

Rubio recalled waking early that morning and seeing Gomez walk into one of the bedrooms.

The young woman woke up to someone holding her wrists and having sex with her. She recalled only the outline of the head hovering over her. To her, it resembled a light bulb and Gomez.

She couldn't muster the word "help" to wake her boyfriend sleeping next to her.

"Shh," the man said.

Her ordeal lasted a minute. It ended when the man stood, zipped up his pants and walked out.

She was confused. She threw her clothes into a corner. She showered and scrubbed herself with her boyfriend's body wash. He was still asleep when she climbed back into bed with a bottle of pepper spray in her hand.

She sat there, naked and scared, and she cried.

Her boyfriend woke up after daybreak.

"He told me I had to tell somebody," she said. "(Gomez) can't get away with this."

He went to find Gomez, but nobody was at his house. He called Chief Petty Officer Stephen Dixon, Gomez's direct supervisor on the Gallatin. Dixon told him to call the police.

"It didn't happen," someone said in the background of the phone call, Dixon recalled. "It didn't happen."

Though Gomez's accuser denied being that someone, she refused to go to the authorities. She worried about what her parents might think.

"I want you to promise," she told her boyfriend, "never to talk about this again."

'Miscommunicated'

Dixon thought Gomez, who was respected in the Gallatin's chain of command, showed promise as a Coast Guardsman.

But he scolded Gomez for hanging out and drinking alcohol with junior Coast Guardsmen, Dixon said.

"He shouldn't have been there in the first place," he said.

Dixon testified during the court-martial that he felt obligated to pass on the rape accusation to his superiors. He said he took it first to the Gallatin's weapons officer, Lt. j.g. Laura Ladd, then to his executive officer, Cmdr. Charles Miller.

"What happened after that," he said, "I don't know."

Dixon never filed a written statement. Investigators never showed up to ask him questions.

But Frederick, the regional public affairs official, said Miller never was told that a sex assault might have happened. An administrative investigation later revealed how the facts were "miscommunicated," Frederick said. But no one was disciplined for the error.

"When the allegations were correctly communicated," he said, "a criminal investigation was immediately launched."

Ladd left the Gallatin in July, the same month the Coast Guard announced that it would convene a court-martial for Gomez.

Miller went to Florida, where he took command of the cutter Resolute.

Dixon took some vacation time, then retired.

'Wants to fit in'

The teasing, the horseplay, the sexual advances proliferated for the next seven months on the Gallatin.

Through a text message, Gomez summoned one seaman to a ship office in early 2012. He was her supervisor. She thought he might assign her a job.

But when she walked in, he hung a sign on the door knob. "Meeting in progress," it said.

He pushed her against a filing cabinet and touched her breasts, she later testified. For 30 seconds, he kissed her neck.

She managed to wriggle free and scurry back to her duty station. To her shipmates, she looked nervous but said little.

"My goal wasn't to get anybody in trouble," she later said.

In April 2012, a 19-year-old female seaman tossed a football with some guys on the beach in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Gomez tried to tackle her, but it wasn't supposed to be a contact game.

"I just wasn't aware of who to talk to about it," she said. "It was hard for me. I was young."

That same month, when the Gallatin was docked on Roatan, an island off Honduras, about 15 sailors drank at the Barking Monkey, a bar on stilts over the sea.

"Hey, look," Gomez yelled to one woman, she said, and flashed his genitals. Another said Gomez stripped off his clothes entirely and jumped into the water with others.

That June, a woman doing accountability checks on the Gallatin was told that Gomez wanted to see her. When she rounded a corner, she said Gomez greeted her with his pants down.

"You're sick for looking," he told her as 10 other men laughed, according to the woman.

That woman regarded some of the run-ins as jokes at first.

When he poked her, she poked him back. One day in the mess hall, she repeated one of his jokes about an angry dolphin, a metaphor for a sex act.

Being one of the guys was her way to survive.

"Everybody wants to fit in on a cutter," she said. "Everybody wants to be in a clique."

'Taking it seriously'

As Gomez's attorneys pointed out during the court-martial, the women went along with some of the treatment.

Invoking an English poet, Virginia lawyer Richard Morris said, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."

Gomez's behavior persisted until one of the women was scorned, he said. She was the same seaman who sometimes jabbed Gomez and told his jokes.

When she informed him in September 2012 that she was pregnant with her husband's child, Gomez poked her in the stomach. He offered to take her out on a boat and cause a miscarriage.

That might have been an attempt at humor, she said, but it was the last straw. She reported it to a female officer on the Gallatin.

One of the others who later came forward said Gomez had touched her genitals as she swam in the ocean off Cuba. She had developed a contentious relationship with Gomez and other superiors. She often swore at them.

"I was not comfortable being on the Gallatin, the way supervisors were," she said. "That was not comfortable at all."

As investigators put the Gallatin under their microscope, Gomez wasn't the only one whose behavior was questioned.

Lt. Wayne Barfield, the ship's engineering officer, will be tried during a court-martial March 24 on six violations of military law.

Barfield served with Gomez for three months on the Gallatin, until Gomez was removed that October.

From June 2012 to this May, offensive comments from Barfield targeted a female subordinate, according to charging documents obtained by The Post and Courier.

During an April 27 stop in Panama, the papers alleged, Barfield was drunk when he pulled down a woman's bikini top.

Authorities said Barfield shouldn't have been hanging out with the enlisted crew or "chicken fighting" in a swimming pool that day either.

Still in Panama on May 10, the documents stated, Barfield danced so inappropriately that he brought discredit to the Coast Guard.

To Panayiota Bertzikis, the cases of Gomez and Barfield contain elements typical of offenses in the Coast Guard.

Bertzikis, who left the branch because of what she called a lack of support after she was sexually assaulted, started the Arizona-based Military Rape Crisis Center in August 2006 to help service members like her.

"In that culture, sexual assault is just a joke," she said in an interview. "The (assault-response) training is just a joke. It's a laughing matter."

Unlike some bases in other armed services, the Coast Guard's small stations don't have staffers dedicated to handle complaints, she said. They instead must telephone their district's Sexual Assault Response Coordinator. For 400 stations and 42,000 active members, there are 20 coordinators worldwide. Charleston's is in Miami.

In Gomez's case, that phone call wasn't made until September 2012, when the women on the Gallatin stepped up.

By then, the odds were stacking against Gomez.

"When there are multiple victims," Bertzikis said, "that's when they really start taking it seriously."

'Lesson learned'

Gomez's attorneys used the Gallatin's atmosphere as a defense during his court-martial. Many participated, they said, so why was Gomez the fall guy?

Prosecutors for the Coast Guard tried to stop elements of that culture from coming out through testimony.

They futilely objected when Gomez's attorneys wanted to play an audio recording of a Coast Guard Investigative Service agent telling Gomez that his commanders had tried to cover for him.

"The Gallatin is not on trial here," Lt. Bryan Tiley said at one point. "The accusations ... are what's relevant."

Days later, Frederick, the Coast Guard spokesman, drove from Virginia for the Gallatin's return from its last patrol through the Caribbean. He instructed journalists on hand for the homecoming not to discuss the controversy with the crew. Sailors who fielded such questions wouldn't answer them.

Attempts to protect the Coast Guard's image, however, fell short early in the court-martial. During jury-selection, some officers expressed misgivings about how commanders had handled past sexual assaults, saying it was problematic for the Coast Guard.

The members of that jury gave Gomez an eight-year prison sentence and a dishonorable discharge that kept him from what he wanted the most: another deployment with his crew.

But he had already lost many of his co-workers' support.

"A big thank you to all my Coast Guard 'friends' who said they had my back and have ignored me, turning their backs on me," he wrote on Facebook during the week of the court-martial. "Lesson learned."

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.