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

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This editorial discusses sexual assualt, which may be a sensitive topic for some readers. To contact resources related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

The public response from leadership at the Maine National Guard to the Bangor Daily News’ “Unguarded” series about the handling of sexual asaults within the state’s Army National Guard has shown why further review and reform is necessary.

We appreciate that Maj. Gen. Douglas Farnham and the Maine National Guard took the step to engage our readers by writing a recent guest column. And we understand that privacy laws and regulations can complicate the guard’s ability to comment, particularly related to specific cases, even if they might want to clarify things.

We also appreciate that Farnham took the time to talk with our editorial board. However, we’re still troubled by the substance of that column, which followed Farnham declining to be interviewed for the “Unguarded” series (guard officials did provide written responses to our colleagues’ questions). In the column, we observed a continued defensiveness from the guard about current practices rather than a willingness to consider acting differently based on the gut wrenching experiences shared by female soldiers. This may not fully or fairly capture all of the Maine guard’s efforts to prevent and address sexual assault in its ranks, however, it was the impression we were left with.

The public deserves confidence that these experiences will be met by continued action and not platitudes. We don’t believe the guard’s response thus far has provided that confidence. And if we’re underwhelmed, if we’ve had some trouble identifying specific information and actions, imagine how soldiers who have been sexually assaulted and harassed feel.

The guard’s continued notion that an increase in cases points to better reporting may be accurate, but it is not adequate. Neither are the repeated pronouncements that sexual assault and harassment are not tolerated, when the experiences of these women show they have been.

What was noticeably absent from Farnham’s column was any mention of the Maine Legislature, or the forthcoming report it has required the guard to produce on sexual assault in its ranks and reccomendations for change. A similar report requested in 2013 seemingly lacked legislative follow-up. We were alarmed that the upcoming state report didn’t register a mention in this column. It felt a lot like punting responsibility to the federal government. So we asked the guard about it.

The response did not eliminate our concerns, but it has tempered them, at least for now as the guard continues to work on that report.

“It’s been a topic for a number of years. And looking back at the 2013 directive, it’s something that needed to be updated,” Farnham told the BDN editorial board. “And there have been a lot of changes in the rules that we follow since 2013. So, taking a step back and taking a good look at where we are, what we’ve been doing, and what else could be done made sense to us. So we supported that legislation.”

In his response, Farnham also mentioned developments at the federal level, including an independent review commission on sexual assult in the military and reform efforts as part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, known as NDAA.

“And again, they gave us until March to report, and we have said that due to the attention — not just from the Bangor Daily News but also with what’s been going all summer with the independent review commission and the Secretary of Defense’s response, and the fact that Congress wasn’t all that excited about his response, and now with the NDAA — we thought that given all that, it makes sense that we report sooner rather than later.”

As those state and federal processes continue, other states have already provided a roadmap to reform. The Maine Legislature and administration of Gov. Janet Mills should look to those experiences for guidance.

Here’s an example where Maine can learn from Alaska’s experience several years ago: Don’t just rely on the state guard to review itself. Alaska’s governor at the time asked the National Guard Bureau Office of Complex Investigations (OCI) to review his state’s guard. That assessment led to significant reforms, including better updates for victims and transparency about disciplinary consequences in cases of sexual assault and harassment.

Based on the experiences chronicled in the “Unguarded” series, improving the process for victims is also needed in Maine. Some of this work is underway, but more can be done (in addition to preventing them from being victimized in the first place).

“We’ve been trying to, within the boundaries and the guidelines that we have, improve our processes,” Farnham told the editorial board.  

Ongoing efforts described in that conversation included the state guard working to hire a full-time victim advocate coordinator and a permanent, full-time role to coordinate with local law enforcement; making some changes related to the existing case management board; and communicating to the National Guard Bureau that Maine is interested in being a pilot state should new programs become available.

“We continue to try to improve and look for ways — if there are things the state can do to complement what we have to do federally, that’s great,” Farnham said.

As we understand it, OCI is not currently conducting the kind of cultural assessment employed in Alaska, as the National Guard Bureau is reviewing the organizational process for conducting such an assessment. When we asked Monday, the National Guard Bureau public affairs office did not have a timeline for when they could start again.

If and when these types of assessments resume (and they absolutely should), Maine should ask for one. If the Maine National Guard and Mills administration want to make sure that sexual assault and harassment are not tolerated in the guard, it seems to us that this kind of additional assessment would be welcome, if not necessary.

The Maine National Guard contributes invaluable service to the state, demonstrated once again by its escalated role in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. The guard’s members deserve a system that better serves them in preventing and addressing instances of sexual assault and harassment.

This isn’t about vilifying the guard; it’s about protecting its members. The forthcoming report due to the Maine Legislature in March can be an important step, but it must be one of many.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...