The fired command master chief of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy had a reputation for getting too close and “huggy” with female cadets and academy personnel, weirding out some women and raising eyebrows in academy circles, according to academy personnel and cadets interviewed as part of a service investigation obtained by Navy Times.
Master Chief Brett VerHulst was relieved and simultaneously resigned as the academy’s senior enlisted leader in April, a move that Superintendent Rear Adm. William Kelly made permanent a few months later.
Kelly opted not to pursue criminal charges against VerHulst, and he has since retired at his current paygrade.
“No punitive action was taken,” the investigation states.
The probe into VerHulst began in April, following an allegation that he hugged an academy cadet and touched her face in his office a few months earlier.
But as Coast Guard Investigative Service agents began digging, their efforts “revealed several other alleged incidents of inappropriate physical contact involving (VerHulst) and USCGA Cadets, USCGA Enlisted personnel and CG Officers,” the investigation states.
The investigation also suggests that VerHulst’s conduct with women was an open secret to some on the New London, Connecticut, campus.
Within the academy clinic, “there was an ongoing joke … about (VerHulst’s) interactions with women,” recalled a female chief, who told agents how she had received an unwanted hug and forehead kiss from VerHulst a few years earlier.
“When people saw (VerHulst) with female cadets, they said things like, ‘there’s another one,’” the chief told agents.
In one instance, another chief reported “concerning behavior” when VerHulst appeared drunk at an official function in April and disappeared.
“Due to the previous observations and rumors about (VerHulst) paying more attention to female cadets, (the chief) was told that a round was completed in Chase Hall to make sure (VerHulst) was not walking through the cadet living areas,” agents wrote.
One person reported seeing VerHulst hug an unidentified female cadet at an academy graduation in October 2020, and that “it seemed strange.”
“So much for social distancing,” the member quipped to another attendee.
Some interviewed said that while they had been subjected to VerHulst’s hugs, forehead kisses and other touching, they thought he was a good man and didn’t want him to get into trouble.
The female cadet at the center of the February incident that sparked the probe was upset about the encounter but didn’t want a formal investigation launched, investigators reported.
She was worried about impacting VerHulst’s retirement and about leaving the academy “in a negative light,” according to the investigation.
Nearly all names in the investigation copy provided to Navy Times are redacted
VerHulst did not respond to Navy Times’s requests for comment, but told investigators in April that it was “devastating” to think that he had made anyone uncomfortable.
“He said he was not aware of any problems or conflict anyone had with him,” agents wrote.
But VerHulst eventually acknowledged the skewed power dynamic at play when the academy’s senior enlisted leader touched junior colleagues, and how “it is likely that not all cadets would feel like they could say no,” agents wrote.
VerHulst initially told agents he had seen other senior leaders give cadets hugs as well.
“When asked to provide an example of a time when he saw a member of the senior leadership team hug a cadet … (VerHulst) was unable to do so,” agents wrote. “He ultimately admitted he had not seen any other member of the senior leadership team hug a cadet.”
He also told agents he knew such behavior didn’t align with Coast Guard policy.
“He understood the perception of his physical contact was that it was inappropriate,” agents wrote. “He said none of his physical contact was suggestive or sexual in nature.”
The investigation and internal emails obtained by Navy Times also suggest that academy leadership was sorry to see VerHulst go.
One female Coast Guard member ,who recounted how VerHulst had once kissed her on the cheek, told agents of a conversation regarding VerHulst she had with a servicemember who worked at the on-campus residence of Superintendent Kelly and his wife, Angie.
The servicemember relayed that “Admiral Kelly advised, ‘everyone should be supportive of Master Chief’” and that “they genuinely believe he’s a good guy,” the investigation states.
That official “relayed that Angie Kelly was sad about the investigation and said she thought (VerHulst) was a good guy and that he was ‘just more of a touchy-feel person,’” agents wrote.
In an emailed response to Navy Times, Kelly did not respond to specific questions about those purported comments.
But through a spokesperson, the superintendent did say that, in February, he “observed VerHulst give a hug to a cadet and then reminded VerHulst of the importance of maintaining professional relationships with cadets at all times.”
While Kelly “informally counseled” VerHulst on the interaction, “no violation of Coast Guard policy had occurred,” according to the spokesperson, Cmdr. Krystyn Pecora.
“After this discussion, RADM Kelly did not observe any additional similar behavior from VerHulst,” Pecora said.
Kelly decided to permanently relieve VerHulst in late May and emailed his plan to Master Chief of the Coast Guard Jason Vanderhaden, records show.
“We chatted with him today,” Kelly wrote to the service’s top enlisted leader. “He’s taking it very hard, but he appears to be ok. Surrounded by family.”
“I suspected he would be hurt,” Vanderhaden replied. “Hopefully he can reflect on both the good he achieved and perhaps areas of improvement.”
In a July email to Vanderhaden, Kelly wrote that he had met with VerHulst and the master chief was “in job search mode.”
“I plan to support him as much as I can going fwd (sic),” Kelly wrote.
In a statement to Navy Times, Kelly said he “continued to check on the VerHulst family to ascertain if any mental health resources or other such support was needed.”
“Oddly casual with her and other women”
The victim whose interaction with VerHulst sparked the investigation told agents that the incident occurred after she briefed academy leadership about a recent cadet suicide attempt in February.
She recalled that after the briefing, VerHulst said he would walk her out.
The cadet recalled Kelly asking VerHulst “where he was going,” according to the investigation.
In VerHulst’s office, the command master chief gave her a challenge coin and a “very firm side hug,” and she pulled away, according to the investigation.
He then placed his hand on the left side of her face and told her something along the lines of, “if you ever need anything,” agents wrote.
She told agents that “it may not have registered with (VerHulst) that she was uncomfortable.”
The woman added that the encounter was not something that would have happened with male cadets.
“She felt strange, and the interaction was unprofessional,” agents wrote.
VerHulst then told her he had to go to a meeting, and she recalled waiting in his office while the command master chief exited because “I didn’t want to walk out with him,” agents wrote.
At one point, the cadet told a chief about the incident but requested that the chief not report it because “CMC VerHulst is a good man,” and she didn’t want him to get in trouble, the chief told investigators.
According to the chief’s recounting, he told the woman that VerHulst’s actions were not appropriate and should be reported.
Since she didn’t wish to report it, the chief offered the option “that he and the other Chiefs address the behavior with (VerHulst),” the investigation states, and the woman stated she “was more comfortable with that happening rather than the matter being officially reported.”
The chief told investigators that he gave the matter more thought and determined that the incident should be reported.
The victim was “really upset” that an official report was made and was concerned about leaving the academy “in a negative light after making a report,” the investigation states.
Agents interviewed a Coast Guard chief who had been assigned to the academy for several years, and “she laughed” when asked about VerHulst, according to the investigation.
She told agents she was a volunteer on the committee planning VerHulst’s retirement ceremony and had “no desire to ‘ruin his career.’”
But she also described him as “huggy,” and “more huggy with females,” investigators wrote.
The woman said that VerHulst gave her “an unwanted hug” shortly after she reported to the academy, and that it made her feel uncomfortable “but not uncomfortable enough to report it,” according to the investigation.
Pressed by agents, the woman said VerHulst had also kissed her on the forehead during the hug interaction back in 2018 or 2019.
“She said when he hugged and kissed her, she stepped away,” agents wrote. “She said it was unclear if (VerHulst) was trying to be ‘fatherly’ or if it was something else.”
The chief added that she made sure to never be alone in a room with the command master chief and that he was “too touchy for my comfort level.”
She noted that “his conduct with women appears inappropriate, especially considering his position as the CMC,” agents wrote.
VerHulst said he remembered hugging but not kissing her, and “was surprised to hear someone reported their interaction.”
One woman whom VerHulst hugged during a dining event described the command master chief as a mentor, and told agents they were “pretty close,” according to the investigation.
She said they met for coffee once a month and discussed both Coast Guard and personal matters, and that he was “well-liked among the cadets.”
Asked about the hug at the dinner, the cadet said the command master chief had hugged her in the past but that the hug at the event “was a little longer than normal,” and she recalled thinking VerHulst “may have had ‘a little to drink’ that night because he was ‘rowdy’ and she thought he was excited all the cadets were there,” the investigation states.
The cadet said she “tried to back up but he was still holding on” during the hug.
She noted that “VerHulst did not touch or grab her anywhere that made her feel uncomfortable on that occasion or at any other time,” the investigation states.
She also recalled attending a “Firstie Formal” event the year before and that VerHulst hugged her and “touched her on her lower back” while she was wearing a dress that exposed her back, according to the investigation.
This angered her fiancée, who told her he was uncomfortable with how “VerHulst touched her and looked at her ‘up and down,’” the investigation states.
VerHulst told agents he never looked at the woman in a sexual manner, “and if he looked at her that night, it would have been because the cadets were all dressed up in civilian formalwear.”
Another female cadet recalled how VerHulst rubbed her back “without permission in a circular motion” during an event at the superintendent’s residence in April, leaving her “very uncomfortable.”
“She regrets not saying something sooner and described a feeling of remorse by not saying something directly to (VerHulst) during the incident,” agents wrote. “(The cadet) clarified this statement by saying she is supposed to be a role model for the cadets, and she shouldn’t have tolerated the unwanted touching in case a cadet observed it and then thought that it was ok.”
The woman added that “VerHulst crossed the professional boundaries and that he was extra friendly and oddly casual with her and other women.”
VerHulst told agents he didn’t remember touching the woman and “adamantly denied rubbing her back.”
One woman who told agents she frequently hugged VerHulst sang his praises as a “great mentor,” but recalled talking to him after he hugged and kissed her on the top of the head during an academy event in front of other cadets.
“She stated she was comfortable with that physical contact with him, but she did not want him to get into trouble,” agents wrote.
A member of the Coast Guard’s Leadership Development Center told investigators that he warned VerHulst in October that “there was a perception that he was behaving inappropriately toward female Coast Guard members,” according to the investigation.
“VerHulst appeared to be surprised, and his main concern was about who knew about the perception, and not why the perception existed,” agents wrote in their summary of the interview. “VerHulst was specifically worried about if (academy superintendent) Rear Adm. William Kelly … knew about this issue.”
The command master chief “jumped on the buzzwords about diversity and inclusion to defend his behavior toward women,” the man recalled, adding that he told VerHulst that “his mentoring sessions with female petty officers and cadets were too much, and he should ‘back off’ from always being with only women.”
The man told investigators he was disappointed that VerHulst didn’t “do the right thing” following their talk, and that he believed the behavior “was clearly a choice as opposed to a mistake.”
In a June 10 email to Vice Adm. Paul Thomas and Rear Adm. Joanna Nunan, Kelly wrote that they would be holding bystander intervention training for the front office and division staff.
“We all own a piece of this,” he wrote.
Thomas was serving as deputy commandant for personnel readiness at the time, according to his LinkedIn page.
“This is a tough one,” Thomas replied. “Subtle signs that are clear in retrospect but are really only apparent when you add up many little things.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.