Service ribbons adorn the uniform worn by a Maine Army National Guard member. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

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This column discusses sexual assault. If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

Maj. Gen. Douglas Farnham is Maine’s adjutant general. He oversees the Maine National Guard.

As Maine’s adjutant general, I take nothing more seriously than the welfare of the men and women who sign up to serve our state and nation. My job, along with leaders at every level of the Maine National Guard, is to make sure that our troops are trained, supported, and have the resources needed to fulfil their mission, whatever it may be.

I believe that if a service member is subjected to any type of assault or experiences harassment in any form, then they have been diminished as a person and that our mission has been jeopardized. That is why I say today — as I do every day — that sexual assault and all forms of harassment stand in stark opposition to everything it means to wear our country’s uniform and are not tolerated in the Maine National Guard.

Our commanders — myself included — know that it is our responsibility to ensure our service members live up to the privilege of wearing the uniform, to hold people accountable and to continue to root out any misconduct in our ranks. This is why our senior leadership has made it a priority to repeatedly encourage all service members to intervene and report misconduct immediately so that disciplinary action can be taken against the alleged perpetrator, consistent with due process, and support can be provided to the survivor.

And we believe the force is responding. We believe the increase in reports over the past few years — many of which are about incidents from several years prior — demonstrates that service members are taking more seriously the importance of reporting inappropriate behavior and are becoming increasingly more comfortable doing so. We welcome this change because more active reporting, whether by the survivor or bystanders, enables us to take action — and we do.

Strictly adhering to our regulations, if we receive an allegation of sexual assault, we then report it directly to civilian law enforcement, which is outside our chain of command, in order to provide for independent, multi-layered levels of accountability. If civilian law enforcement find that the facts of a case are not substantial enough to pursue criminal charges in the court system, or if survivors choose not to pursue that action, we then refer cases to outside federal investigators.

If they are able to substantiate the allegations, we use their findings to take administrative action — action that can, and has, resulted in “other than honorable” discharges in cases of proven misconduct. The Inspector General is an independent safeguard against illegal retaliation and reprisal during this process.

Any member of the National Guard can report any sexual assault through our program, regardless of whether that assault occurred on or off duty, by another service member or someone outside of our ranks, whether it occurred on active duty prior to joining the National Guard or even if it occurred before the survivor entered the military altogether. We do this because we take sexual assault and harassment seriously, and we want to help provide justice and support if that is what the survivor wants.

Ultimately, we have the utmost respect for the courage it takes for any survivor, military or civilian, to share their story and, if they would like, want to help them heal from their trauma, regardless of when and where it took place. In 2017 we established, and recently strengthened, an Office of the Provost Marshal to support both survivors and other service members for any issue requiring interaction with law enforcement. We also provide survivors with access to an outside attorney, a special victim counsel, to help navigate their process. Last spring, MECASA publicly recognized our program’s work as part of a statewide community of advocates.

We welcome the debate in Congress and the U.S. Department of Defense about ways to further strengthen the military’s ability to eliminate sexual assault and harassment, and we will continue educate the force that sexual assault and harassment are not compatible with military service and that misconduct will not be tolerated. We will continue to encourage reporting and intervention, and continue to aggressively seek action against those who fail to live up to our values. Our Soldiers and Airmen, and the state of Maine, deserve nothing less.