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

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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.

In any public policy debate, it is critical that the people directly affected remain front and center. The way that laws and regulations are developed and implemented is fundamental to the democratic system. In short, process matters, too.

But the people must not get lost in the shuffle. In terms of addressing sexual assault and harassment in the Maine Army National Guard, that means listening to the female soldiers who have shared stories of the abuse, retaliation and lack of transparency they experienced.

That means listening to Meg Church, who told the BDN last year about being harassed and retaliated against by a superior, when she questions why the guard has been tasked with reviewing and proposing solutions about itself.

“An independent investigation needs to happen,”Church told BDN reporter Callie Ferguson. “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.”

We could not have said it better, though we’ve tried in the past

The Maine guard presented a new report to lawmakers last week proposing modest reforms. The Legislature required that report in a 2021 law.

A three-part Bangor Daily News series last year exposed lax enforcement policies, little oversight and retaliation against those who came forward with reports of abuse in the Maine Army National Guard. It also found a recent spike in substantiated sexual assault investigations.

The guard has moved in the right direction by proposing reforms, including work with the governor’s office to create an advisory council to review its sexual assault an harassament policies. But, as Church said, an outside review is also needed.

Encouragingly, it does appear that some members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee are listening in the Legislature. Following pressure from sexual abuse survivors, the seven Democrats on the committee voted to advance a bill that would launch an outside review of the guard and codify reforms it proposed in the recent report. No Republicans on the committee were present for that vote on Monday.

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

We agree. To us, a seemingly obvious “something” to do next would be to pursue the independent review. Several years ago, Alaska’s National Guard went through significant reforms after the state’s governor asked the National Guard Bureau Office of Complex Investigations to review it.

Unfortunately, it seems the Office of Complex Investigations is not conducting these cultural assessments while the National Guard Bureau reviews the process for them. The bureau’s public affairs office did not have a timeframe for when these reviews could begin again when we asked in December, and they still didn’t have one this week. That is a problem in itself.

This type of review worked in Alaska, so it stands to reason that it could be helpful in Maine. But it isn’t the only way to launch an outside review. How to do so may be an open question, but there should be little doubt one is needed.

This is an important step, but it also leads to a lot of discussion about process. So let’s return to the people who have been victimized, and what else they want to see next.

Aleigh Suffern, a former sergeant who reported a sexual assault in 2020, told Ferguson that last week’s hearing suffered from a “crucial” lack of input from survivors.

“I would like to hear more about what the guard is doing to take steps towards preventing this behavior,” she said, along with how it plans to support survivors. Lawmakers should also want to hear more about those plans.

To be clear, the Maine Army National Guard has outlined reforms to improve how it handles sexual assault and harassment. And we realize that work to improve has been ongoing over several years, and that steps like creating two full-time positions to serve as liaisons with victims and civilian law enforcement have already been taken.

But more remains to be done.  

A spokesperson for Gov. Janet Mills said the governor considers this report and the advisory council a “first step,” and as we’ve said before, it must be but one of many steps to both prevent and address sexual assault and harassment in guard. These brave women and men who serve Maine deserve nothing less.

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...