Peacetime deaths in the military always seem in some degree senseless. In the case of Captain Ernie Blanchard, the U.S. Coast Guard's top spokesman, that was even truer than usual. Blanchard, it appears, died from a few offensive jokes.
On Jan. 10 of last year, he strode to the podium of the Old Wardroom dining hall at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, to inspire the 118 cadets of Bravo Company and their guests with tales of Coast Guard glory. Aiming to start on a light note, Blanchard promised to "dispense with the political correctness" and opened with several risque jokes as guests finished their strawberry-covered cheesecake. Blanchard said he had seen a cadet's fiance wearing a brooch featuring maritime signal flags. Blanchard's joke: "She said the flags meant, 'I love you.' They really said, 'Permission granted to lay alongside.'" Then Blanchard offered one about his old buddy, Captain Patrick Stillman, the commandant of cadets. On Stillman's wedding night, Blanchard said, the captain told his bride she could do anything she wanted. "So she immediately went to sleep," he said. Finally there was the one about the cadet who wondered why his fiance was wolfing down a costly meal at a fancy restaurant when she never ate like that at home. "She replied," Blanchard said, "that her mother didn't want to sleep with her." By now, the laughing had stopped.
School officials and cadets, including many of the 25 women who had been present, complained about Blanchard's poor taste. Three days after the dinner, Stillman called Blanchard to express formally the academy's displeasure. Within hours, Blanchard faxed a letter of apology to the academy, where he taught political science from 1977 to 1981. "Us old sea dogs need to adapt," he conceded, "and change the way we have always done things." With the letter, Blanchard and Stillman thought the subject was closed.
But under pressure from a dozen Coast Guard women, most of them at the academy, the Coast Guard brass launched a criminal probe into the jokes, according to a recently concluded review of the case obtained by TIME. This was not Blanchard's first such cultural clash. In 1990, as skipper of the Legare, a sleek, new 270-ft. cutter, a female petty officer charged him with sexual harassment, saying he and another commander had treated her unfairly and called her a "Jewish-American princess." (For good measure, she wasn't Jewish.) While Blanchard was never punished, the Coast Guard concluded he had harassed the woman. After his speech to the cadets, academy instructors argued that Blanchard needed to be punished if their lessons about gender equality were to take root in a service not always welcoming to women. "All the sexual jokes he told were typical 'male power' jokes and involved males doing it to females," said Judith Youngman, a political-science teacher at the academy.
For Blanchard, the father of two teenagers, the probe threatened to end the career to which he had devoted 30 of his 46 years. "Newspapers are going to have a field day," Blanchard fretted. "My children are going to be humiliated." He abandoned his exercise regime and stared blankly out his office window instead. His unease mounted as his colleagues avoided him. "As chief of public affairs, his phones rang all the time," his widow Connie, an elementary school teacher, told TIME. "It was very noticeable when all that stopped."