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The recently published investigative series “Unguarded” by our BDN colleagues Callie Ferguson and Josh Keefe was a powerful and alarming look into the handling of sexual assaults within the Maine Army National Guard. It requires an equally powerful response from the guard, state lawmakers and the Mills administration — not just in strong words, but through action.
The unacceptable experiences of female soldiers who shared how they have faced sexual assault and harassment only to be met with retaliaiton and inacction, must not be explained away. They must be addressed with continued review and reform. The guard system should protect the women and men who protect us, not enable a predatory culture.
“How can you go to war with people that don’t have your back?” a female soldier who said she was assaulted by a pilot in the guard told the BDN. “The nature of the job itself, these are positions of trust. Everybody that enlists through the military is sworn to protect the Constitution and country, all enemies foreign and domestic. These predators are domestic.”
Unfortunately, sexual assault and harassment in the military is a national problem. But federal efforts to address it and the reform experiences of other states can help inform what Maine does next to improve oversight and transparency. A forthcoming report from the guard on sexual assault in its ranks and reccomendations for change, as required by a law passed earlier this year, is a starting point. A similar report requested in 2013 seems to have sat on a shelf without legislative follow up. That cannot happen again.
“We need to work to make it safer for everyone to be able to safely report instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” said Democrat Rep. Morgan Rielly of Westbrook, who introduced the bill requiring the updated report. “So that, one, we can understand the scope of the problem that you’re looking at right now, and two, offer victims the support services that they need, and three, hold the perpetrators accountable.”
Maj. Gen Douglas A. Farnham, who oversees the Maine National Guard, declined a request for an interview as part of the “Unguarded” series. Guard officials did respond in writing to questions, saying in part that the guard is serious about its responsibility to “root out sexual assault and sexual harassment within its ranks,” that it encourages all service members to “intervene in inappropriate behavior and to report it immediately so that appropriate disciplinary action can be taken against the perpetrator and supportive action can be taken to help the victim.” The officials attributed the recent rise in sexual assault cases to a greater willingness to report them. Guard leadership also scheduled more training on preventing sexual assault and harassment after the BDN started asking questions earlier this year.
But clearly, more work remains.
“You will soon read negative press about the Maine National Guard with respect to sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Farnham wrote in an organization-wide email alerting guard members about the BDN’s three-part series. A copy of the email was obtained by the BDN. “I am proud of the work we have done resulting in increased reporting, including bystander reporting. I am proud of the work you have done. We will not let up the efforts. You should always feel comfortable and empowered to report instances of sexual assault or harassment. Sexual assault and harassment are not compatible with military service. Period.”
In a statement to the BDN, Gov. Janet Mills said her administration, including the Maine National Guard, “does not tolerate assault or harassment, and we are committed to taking immediate, responsive action to any reports brought to our attention, both to pursue accountability for the perpetrator and to provide justice and support for the survivor.”
Saying it’s not tolerated is one thing, but we have trouble squaring that with the experiences of these women, even if there have been some improvements since some of these incidents took place.
There is a moral imperative for action on this recent reporting, but also a strategic one. Maine needs these women who sign up to serve in the National Guard, and they need a system and leadership they can trust to work to prevent and act on their mistreatment.
Consider the experience of a former flight coordinator in the guard, who had to use a Freedom of Information Act request to learn that investigators substantiated her assault allegations. As she read that 16-page report, she said she also learned that people in the guard knew about the man’s conduct.
“You’re led to believe that you’re in a family,” she said. “Your job is essentially to die for the person to the left and right of you.”
She told the BDN that she knew her military career had ended once she realized she could no longer trust the people with whom she served.
And consider the experience of Meg Church, who left the Maine guard after filing a substantiated sexual harassment complaint in 2013. She now serves full time for the South Carolina National Army Guard.
“Not everyone has the ability to pack up and get out,” Church said. “And you shouldn’t have to.”
These women are exactly the kind of people that Maine needs. They and others deserve a system in the Maine Army National Guard that protects them, ensures that claims of sexual assault and harassment are thoroughly investigated in a timely manner, and takes appropriate and transparent disciplinary action when warranted.
Lawmakers and the Mills administration owe them careful consideration and continued action to ensure such a system. Anything else would be a dereliction of duty.