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 Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

Soldiers who were sexually assaulted and harassed in the Maine Army National Guard told wrenching stories of abuse and retaliation and the psychological toll that takes for more than three hours on Friday during a hearing on a bill that would launch an outside investigation of the guard’s predatory culture.

Current and former members of the organization painted emotional, detailed portraits for lawmakers about how the Army side of the organization’s culture preyed on them, retaliated against them for speaking up, and in many cases, prematurely ended their military careers.

For some service members, it marked the first time they told their stories first hand since coming forward in a three-part Bangor Daily News series last year. Others had never shared their stories before, they said, for fear of negative repercussions.

“I’ll never have justice, so for me, this is my form of justice,” said former Staff Sgt. Brittany Smith, who recounted her experience of reporting a sexual assault and being medically discharged because of the trauma it caused.

“That’s not fair. It’s not fair that my career was over because I came forward and told the truth.”

The testimony, which kicked off a hearing that lasted more than five hours, seemed to solidify lawmakers’ resolve that an outside probe is necessary to understand the scope of the guard’s culture problems and how to fix them. The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs committee will reconvene next week to discuss whether the Maine attorney general’s office or the National Guard Bureau should conduct that investigation.

“How can we ever allow a woman alone in the Maine National Guard ever?” asked Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden. “Until this culture is changed, if it’s changeable, it seems like [leaders] should be protecting them.”

The bill would also codify a series of other improvements to the culture of the organization, which also includes the Air National Guard. No one from the Air side of the organization testified on Friday.

Maj. Gen. Douglas Farnham, the guard’s adjutant general and Maine’s top military official, also appeared before lawmakers Friday for the second time this month. On March 11, he presented a series of proposed reforms that prompted no critical questions from the committee, spurring survivors to reach out to lawmakers directly and set in motion Friday’s more emotionally charged meeting.

“The last three hours prior…was one three hours’ kick in the gut,” Farnham said following the soldiers’ testimony. “We are as committed as you are to making it right.”

In response to pointed questions from lawmakers, he pledged to ensure that no one who testified would face blowback as a result of speaking up.

Asked if any member of the guard who is guilty of the conduct he heard about today should remain in the organization, he replied, “No.”

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Callie Ferguson

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