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.

A week ago, survivors of sexual assault and harassment in the Maine Army National Guard shared horrific stories with lawmakers. In hours of testimony, they spoke of abuse, retaliation and, for some, early ends to their careers in the guard. They urged members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee to ensure that an independent review of the guard’s handling of such cases was undertaken.

Committee members heard them.

On Thursday, the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee supported amended legislation that would initiate two investigations. First, it would request that the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations complete a review of the Maine Army National Guard’s handing of sexual abuse and harassment cases. This follows a similar request, announced last week, from the head of the Maine Army National Guard. 

Second, in a significant step toward a deeper and more consequential investigation, the amendment calls for an investigation by the Office of the Maine Attorney General to determine if the state should bring any criminal charges against guard members accused of sexual abuse or harassment. The attorney general would also look at how local law enforcement handles cases from the guard.

After months of tepid responses, it is heartening that lawmakers — and guard leadership — are stepping up to assess the guard’s handling of such cases. The findings should improve the guard’s handling of future cases, but more importantly, it should guide efforts to stop such abuse and harassment before it happens.

“I want our Soldiers and Airmen, and their families, to be confident that we are doing everything we can to support and protect them as we continue the critical work of eliminating sexual assault and harassment from our ranks,” Maj. Gen. Douglas Farnham, the guard’s adjutant general, wrote in a March 18 letter to the Office of Complex Investigations. Farnham’s request for an OCI review is the most aggressive step the guard has taken following reports that it has mishandled assault and harassment cases. It previously announced modest reforms.

In his letter, Farnham set the right standard. However, the testimony from current and former guard members, and a Bangor Daily News investigation, are a reminder that the guard has a long way to go to meet it.

As we’ve written before, the guard has moved in the right direction by proposing reforms, including working with the governor’s office to create an advisory council to review its sexual assault an harassament policies. The creation of the council was also formally a nnounced in late March by the governor’s office. The council is charged with making recommendations to the governor by December on how the Maine National Guard can improve its response to sexual assault and sexual harassment within its ranks.

But, it remained clear that an outside review was also needed. The first avenue, as Farnham has requested and the legislative committee supported, is the OCI process. The Office of Complex Investigations was created in 2013 to assess how well state and territorial guard outfits handle assault cases. Other states, such as Alaska and Vermont, have also sought help from the division in the wake of sexual assualt scandals.

There’s a big caveat, however. It’s unclear if Maine’s request will be accepted because 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 when asked earlier this month.

If an OCI investigation is not forthcoming, the guard and Legislature must pursue other avenues for review. The attorney general’s investigation, although different in scope, would serve as an additional assessment in case an OCI review is not forthcoming or is delayed.

It has taken too long, but we applaud lawmakers and Army National Guard leadership for hearing the urgency for reform and for taking significant steps toward addressing — and hopefully stopping — sexual abuse and harassment.

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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...