President Joe Biden delivered the keynote address at the Coast Guard Academy during the 140th commencement exercises May 19, 2021. The Coast Guard Academy graduated 240 new officers along with seven international students. US Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Thieme.
When Isaak Olson was 21, his longtime girlfriend gave birth to his child. The two had dated since high school in Los Angeles and planned to get married. There was one thing standing in their way — Olson was in his third year as a cadet at the US Coast Guard Academy. And cadets, under both school regulations and federal law, cannot be married or have children at any time during the four years of their education.
Along with the USCGA, the no-dependents rule applies to all cadets at the US Military, Naval, Air Force, and Merchant Marine academies. No similar rule applies to any other serving member of the military nor to ROTC cadets at traditional colleges.
When his child was born Olson felt trapped, but he put his head down and committed to the academy. He was captain of the water polo team and managed the intramural sports program. He met or exceeded standards on his Cadet Evaluation Reports.
In March of 2014, he received orders for what would be his first post-academy duty assignment as an officer on the Coast Guard cutter Spar. He would report after his graduation, which was two months away. But some of the paperwork for his commission and new assignment required him to list any dependents. He filled it out truthfully, acknowledging the existence of his child for the first time.
His world immediately fell apart.
When officials learned that Olson had a child, he began meeting with various members of his chain of command. Panicked, Olson and his girlfriend, Tianellie Galindo, began taking steps toward severing his parental rights. But it was too late. The superintendent of the academy notified Olson that he was being disenrolled on April 14, 2014, a month prior to the graduation for which he had already completed all academic requirements.
With help of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, Olson is now fighting for his right to the degree and commission he contends he earned before anyone at the academy knew he was a parent.
“The Academy’s strict regulation prohibiting parents from being cadets forces cadets like Mr. Olson to make an agonizing decision: either resign from the Academy and forfeit their college degree and commission as an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, or remain enrolled but surrender their parental rights, terminate their pregnancy, or pressure their partner to terminate their pregnancy,” reads the lawsuit Olson filed against the Coast Guard Academy in the US District Court for the District of Connecticut.
California family court granted Galindo sole custody of the child on April 24, 2014, but the Coast Guard’s chief of human resources still denied Olson’s appeal. Olson married Galindo on June 7, 2014, and enlisted in the Coast Guard on June 24, 2014, the same day the academy officially disenrolled him. If he had not enlisted, he would have been liable for full repayment of the cost of his education — a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering that he was never actually granted.
The lawsuit alleges that Olson’s right to due process under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution was violated. It also claims that the ban on parenthood is “arbitrary, capricious, and not in accordance with the policies on parenthood of the rest of the military” and therefore is a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
Linda Morris, one of Olson’s lawyers from the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, sees the case as straightforward.
“The right to raise your child and to have decision-making power over the care, custody, and control of your children is a fundamental right that’s protected by the Constitution,” Morris told Coffee or Die Magazine. “It’s really just up to the court to enforce that right and to make sure that this policy is found unconstitutional.”
The aim of the lawsuit is not only to convince the court to grant an injunction that would award Olson his degree and commission, but also to enjoin the academies from enforcing the existing regulation.
Former Air Force Academy cadet Melissa Hemphill faced a similar problem when she became pregnant by another cadet more than a decade ago. She and the cadet, who is now her husband, essentially took turns severing their parental rights to continue their studies. She has campaigned to change the rules and is following Olson’s case.
“I think the ACLU found the perfect case. While this no-dependent policy disproportionately impacts women, this isn’t a women’s problem — it’s a human problem and has been impacting fathers since the dawn of the service academies,” Hemphill told Coffee or Die.
Hemphill thought the issue would be decided under recent legislation she campaigned for, known as the CADET Act. The act, co-sponsored by Sens. Ted Cruz and Kirsten Gillibrand, would have eliminated the rule against cadets at military academies having dependents.
While the CADET Act in its original form did not make it into this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, a modified version is included, setting a one-year timetable for the academies to create new regulations that will allow cadets with dependent children to find alternate custodial agreements and not remove them from their studies or disallow them from commissioning.
“Although it’s not the CADET Act as originally written and extends the timeline under the current policy, I still see this as a win,” Hemphill said. “Change is coming and will ideally strike the right balance between the service members’ rights and force readiness.”
In a statement, Sen. Cruz told Coffee or Die that he sees the language in the NDAA as a huge step forward. “I’m proud to have led the fight to pass the CADET Act,” Cruz wrote. “Until now, too many academy students and service members have been unfairly forced to choose between their families and their careers.”
But Olson’s lawyers think the lawsuit and the CADET Act are two entirely separate moving pieces in the battle to establish this right for military academy cadets.
“We are glad that Congress also agrees that this discrimination is wrong,” Yael Caplan from the Veterans Legal Services Clinic said to Coffee or Die. “But we think that this policy is a policy that the Biden administration and military leaders ought to act on today, to rescind this unconstitutional policy irrespective of the CADET Act.”
Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Committee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay-at-home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!
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