The patch of the Maine National Guard adorns the sleeve of a member of the Army National Guard, in Bangor, Nov. 11, 2021. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

The Maine National Guard should report sexual assaults to the local district attorney for potential criminal prosecution, fill open victim advocate positions as soon as possible, and commit to developing and promoting more women into leadership positions.

These are just three of many recommendations announced Thursday by the Advisory Council on Military Sexual Trauma to improve how the Maine National Guard responds to sexual assault and sexual harassment in its ranks.

Gov. Janet Mills established the council earlier this year as one of several responses to a Bangor Daily News series that exposed a culture on the Army side that is permissive of sexual abuse, retaliates against soldiers who come forward, and causes lasting harm that drives women out of the service.

The 21-page report identifies how the guard can increase reporting of sexual assaults, prevent sexual trauma, improve communication with law enforcement, better support victims, and provide ways for victims to alert higher-ups of problems when they report or participate in investigations.

Some of the specific recommendations include the following:

— The guard’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response team and local support centers should work more closely together.

— Given members’ mistrust of the guard, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault should hire an advocate who can be a liasion to the military.

— The guard should collect data through anonymous surveys and focus groups to evaluate experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment, trust in leadership, understanding of bystander roles, experiences with alcohol and drugs, perceptions about how reports would be handled, and knowledge about the reporting process, to better inform internal policies.

— The guard should increase service members’ access to outside behavioral health care providers.

— The guard should provide information about the number of women who have been promoted and those who have left due to sexual assault and sexual harassment.

— Propose national legislation to allow a victim’s health care costs to be covered when a service member is assaulted by another service member while not on duty.

— The guard’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response team should refer victims to Pine Tree Legal Assistance who may be able to offer legal help in civil protection from harassment, protection from abuse or Title IX proceedings.

— A newly established provost marshal position should help the guard improve communication between survivors of military sexual trauma, state prosecutors, and local police when it comes to tracking cases through the criminal justice system and relaying issues and concerns.

There are barriers to reporting sexual assault within the military, the advisory council said. They come from “fear of reprisal, lack of confidence in the chain of command, and fear of re-traumatization,” according to the council’s report.

In response, the guard should use military protection orders and issue harassment warnings when desired by victims, the council said. What’s more, it should increase education about reporting options, including reports of retaliation and reprisal, which can go to a number of people including the inspector general.

Mills is reviewing the recommendations and has asked the council — which consists of 11 members from military, victim support and law enforcement backgrounds — to continue meeting on a regular basis to “continue to ensure that we are doing all we can to meet our commitment to Maine’s Guard members,” she said.

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...