USMMA alumni: Sea Year safety reforms have ‘gone nowhere’

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The following is text of a letter from Capt. James F. Tobin, president and CEO of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association and Foundation (AAF):

(KINGS POINT, N.Y.) — The USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation is committed to serving and assisting the academy and midshipmen, and we are grateful to all of you for your continued support. We have been working in good faith with MarAd (Maritime Administration) and DOT (U.S. Department of Transportation) over the last few months to improve safety protocols for all cadets and mariners at sea.

DOT/MarAd initially assured everyone involved that the interruption in Sea Year was a “pause.” Though we and other stakeholders have been patient, I am frustrated to report that as of my most recent meeting on Jan. 21 that this interruption in placing our cadets on commercial vessels is not in fact a pause, but has become a stand down entering its fourth month, due to MarAd’s embrace of a bureaucratic approach, called EMBARC, that has gone nowhere to date.

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The midshipmen have been and continue to be our top priority. Their training and education is paramount. We cannot stand idle while their training is compromised – and their licensing and graduation delayed – while MarAd/DOT try to figure out a workable plan.

Despite initial pledges that they would not send their students out on commercial ships during the “pause,” state maritime academies’ students are now training on berths reserved by law for USMMA midshipmen – midshipmen who have an eight-year service obligation to serve this nation – midshipmen who will join other USMMA graduates to comprise over 80 percent of the U.S. Navy Strategic Sealift officer force. Our position has been, and continues to be, that if commercial shipping is safe for one group of cadets, it is safe for all cadets.

When Midshipman X’s account of sexual assault came to light, the AAF was the first to call for a comprehensive investigation, and we have been in constant contact since with DOT, MarAd, including its Surge Team, and Congress. From the start, our goal has been to drive both the executive branch and Congress to readily implementable solutions that will get our midshipmen back on commercial ships while also improving protections, training, reporting, and consequences to address sexual misconduct. As it has become increasingly clear that the ironically named EMBARC is a non-starter, we have offered practical suggestions focused on strengthening the existing Shipboard Climate Compliance Team (SCCT) policies that would allow USMMA midshipmen to return to sea immediately.

While there are a few vocal Sea Year critics in Congress, most of the members – Democrat and Republican – we speak with on a regular basis are supportive of this mission critical training, want it restarted immediately, and are becoming increasingly frustrated with MarAd/DOT.

The AAF is actively engaging with policymakers, including members of Congress, key legislative staffers, and political appointments and civil service staff within MarAd, DOT, and the administration, to get them to agree to an interim plan – building on previously agreed-to protections – that will send midshipmen back to sea ASAP. We will keep all Kings Point stakeholders posted on the progress and let you know if any actions are needed from our alumni base.

By Rich Miller