Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, looks at paperwork, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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.

Democratic lawmakers called on Monday for an outside probe of how the Maine National Guard  responds to sexual assault and harassment.

Following pressure from survivors of sexual abuse, seven Democrats on the Maine Legislature’s veterans panel voted to send forward a bill to launch an outside investigation of the guard and propose reforms to its polices. The committee will vote whether the full Legislature should authorize the bill after finalizing the language in upcoming meetings. No Republicans on the committee were present for the vote on Monday, but they will weigh in on any final product.

The move came after female soldiers who were assaulted or harassed in the guard criticized lawmakers for failing to grill state military officials about the organization’s past mishandling of cases last Friday, when the committee met with military leaders to discuss the issue. Many of them expected the committee to take action on concerns raised by a three-part Bangor Daily News series exposing the Maine Army National Guard’s lax enforcement of policies, little oversight, and retaliation against soldiers who come forward with reports of sexual abuse.

“This issue is major across the country and we know we have a problem with it here in Maine,” said committee co-chair Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, “and we know that as the Legislature we have an obligation to do something about it.”

The push for an outside investigation marks the first time overseers have taken action in response to concerns about the National Guard since soldiers came forward about the problem months ago, and presented a glimmer of hope to survivors who have long waited for someone to hold the organization accountable.

On Friday, guard leaders presented a set of modest reforms that prompted no tough questions from those same lawmakers and left some of the women who spoke to the BDN or experienced similar abuse feeling betrayed.

Hickman said he has since spoken to three current and former members of the guard, some survivors of assault, who pressed the committee to take action. One of them told him that the process of reporting her assault was “nothing short of tortuous” and she would “rather be assaulted again than have to go through that,” the senator said, quoting from his notes.

“The culture of, ‘It did not happen to you, we don’t believe you, please be quiet, don’t bring this up, it’s too hard on people you’re accusing,’ that I understand,” Hickman said because he is also a survivor of sexual assault.

Rep. Morgan Rielly, D-Westbrook, worked with committee staff all weekend to draft an initial version of the bill that would launch an outside investigation of the guard, as well as codify other reforms, most of which military leaders proposed last week.

Maine could follow in the footsteps of other states by asking the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations to look into the scope of Maine’s problem and identify flaws in its sexual assault policies, Rielly suggested, citing BDN reporting on how other states have tackled the problem. If the bureau is unable to do that, the investigation should be conducted by an independent firm that understands the problem of military sexual assault.

Committee co-chair Rep. Chris Caiazzo, D-Scarborough, said he wouldn’t vote for the bill as drafted because it proposes specific solutions before lawmakers have received input at a public hearing, but he said he believes in the need for an outside investigation.

“I am the only veteran in the caucus. I do think that the culture needs to change, is changing, may not be changing fast enough,” he said.

Panel member Sen. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, who formerly served as the highest-ranking enlisted airman in the Maine Air National Guard, said it was premature to comment on the draft language ahead of further legislative work.

“Sexual assault and harassment cannot be tolerated in our National Guard,” he said. “That said, we must also remember that 99 percent of our valued service members serve us bravely and honorably.”

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