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

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

Soldiers who were sexually assaulted and harassed in the Maine Army National Guard on Friday criticized lawmakers for failing to grill guard officials about their mishandling of cases and a hostile culture toward female service members.

Four months after a Bangor Daily News investigation laid bare an unchecked culture of sexual abuse and a spike in investigations, the lawmakers tasked with oversight of the guard didn’t press military leaders on the problem and punted on recommending an independent probe, as other states facing similar scandals have done.

“It seems as though everyone in Augusta is in denial of what has happened, and I don’t believe the organization can truly be committed to the welfare of their soldiers and airmen until they start having difficult conversations,” said Meg Church, who shared her story of being harassed and retaliated against by a superior. She now works full time for the South Carolina Army National Guard.

Church questioned why the committee trusts the guard to propose solutions when it won’t admit it has a problem. “An independent investigation needs to happen. There is no shame in admitting failure if it shows members of the guard that the leadership can and will do better in the future,” she said.

The BDN in November published a three-part investigation based on interviews and public documents  that showed a recent jump in sexual assault and harassment cases investigated in the Maine Army National Guard, where lax enforcement of policies, little oversight, and retaliation against soldiers who came forward continued for more than a decade.

But lawmakers didn’t ask about any of those findings after guard officials discussed their new report outlining  how they plan to address sexual abuse and harassment. 

Aleigh Suffern, a former sergeant who reported a sexual assault in 2020, said the hearing suffered from a “crucial” lack of input from survivors. The BDN did not name her in previous coverage because she was still in the process of leaving the guard after investigators substantiated her report against a sergeant major.

“I would like to hear more about what the guard is doing to take steps towards preventing this behavior,” she said, in addition to how it plans to support survivors.

Committee co-chairs Rep. Chris Caiazzo, D-Scarborough and Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, as well as Rep. Morgan Rielly, D-Westbrook, who sponsored the legislation that spurred Friday’s meeting, could not be reached for comment after the remote hearing ended.

Rielly’s bill last year required the guard to submit a report about how well it aligned with 2013 federal best practices for investigating and preventing sexual abuse. On Friday, lawmakers met to discuss the report and largely asked the guard officials clarifying questions about its policies, as well as whether they could provide statistical information and results from a recent culture survey. The committee wanted to get “a better understanding” of the problem said Rielly.

Adjutant General Douglas Farnham, the guard’s chief military official, said he would work on fulfilling that request but warned some data may be difficult to provide due to confidentiality reasons.

But in June 2021, guard officials acknowledged that “significant increases” in workplace discrimination complaints including sexual harassment over the previous 18 months that reflected an “unprecedented and unacceptable pattern,” according to a copy of an internal email obtained by the BDN.

Until late 2019, the Maine Army National Guard had averaged about one complaint per year of sexual harassment and had no reports of sexual assault until late 2019. That average jumped to about five complaints a year as of June 2021.

The four complaints of sexual assault since 2020 were investigated and substantiated by the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations, a division of the federal agency that coordinates with state and territorial national guard units. The bureau reported no investigations of sexual assaults within the Maine Army National Guard before 2020, officials said.

Interviews with more than 15 current and former guard members, including seven women who said they were assaulted by other guard members, said the uptick represented a breaking point in frustration over a culture that enables abuse by retaliating against women who report it. Soldiers faulted the guard’s policies as ineffective or insufficient.

That said, the guard primarily relies on civilian law enforcement to investigate reports of sexual assault, and only conducts internal investigations in the absence of a criminal prosecution.

However, it does not track its referrals to law enforcement, making it difficult to understand the complete picture of how many sexual assault complaints are brought forward and substantiated.

The BDN identified two criminal cases filed last year involving men who allegedly assaulted another soldier.

Bret Chapman will be sentenced Monday after pleading guilty to one count of sexual abuse for assaulting another service member last year while deployed to the southwest border. Meanwhile, a gross sexual assault case is still pending against Specialist David Cyr in Washington County after he allegedly assaulted a female soldier during a drill weekend in 2019.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Rep. Morgan Rielly’s last name.

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.