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An advisory council has released a promising set of more than 20 recommendations to help the Maine National Guard improve its response to sexual assault. This progress did not happen in a vacuum — it happened because survivors bravely stepped forward to share their stories, and because officials have decided to listen and take action.
Over a year ago, the BDN published an investigative series about the handling of sexual assaults within the Maine Army National Guard. Female soldiers shared their experiences of facing sexual assault and harassment, and how they were met with retaliation and inaction.
In March, soldiers spent three hours testifying to state lawmakers about the abuse and retaliation they endured, and the toll it has taken on them.
“I’ll never have justice, so for me, this is my form of justice,” former Staff Sgt. Brittany Smith testified. She recounted how she reported a sexual assault and then was 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.”
It is not just unfair. It is unacceptable, unjust, unconscionable. And it is also unproductive for the guard, which relies on the service and commitment of its members, like these remarkable soldiers who have shared their stories.
These powerful, painful experiences clearly got the attention of policymakers and guard officials. The guard’s top military official Maj. Gen. Douglas Farnham called the collective testimony a “three hours’ kick in the gut” later that day.
“We are as committed as you are to making it right,” Farnham said.
Lawmakers, Gov. Janet Mills and guard leadership have taken several actions since the BDN published the “Unguarded” series last year. That includes Mills establishing the Advisory Council on Military Sexual Trauma, which recently released its 21-page report.
The report includes recommended steps such as developing memorandums of understanding between the guard, county district attorney offices and the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault to help determine jurisdiction and how cases will be investigated; fully staffing victim advocate positions as soon as possible; and increasing education, support services and reporting options.
Advisory council member Rebecca Cornell du Houx, who is the executive director of the Sisters in Arms Center that provides support to female veterans, said there was “pretty remarkable agreement” among council members.
“I think the way that it progressed was very inclusive,” she told the BDN editorial board. We asked her if there were any particular recommendations she felt could be especially impactful.
“I think holistically, everything fits into a place and makes it work. I don’t think that one recommendation above all else is going to sort of rectify or solve the issue,” she told us. “I do think that there are components that might have a bigger impact.”
As one example, she cited the recommendation specifying that district attorneys be the point of contact for the guard’s provost marshal when reporting criminal activity. Cornell du Houx explained how the time period after someone has filed a report can be “a really difficult time for survivors” filled with anxiety, isolation and confusion about the process.
“One of the things is they historically have gotten bounced around, and it’s hard to find a concrete policy or direction — or it has historically been,” she said. “And so having the DA as the point of contact for the different counties within the state, I think, is going to mitigate a lot of running around trying to figure out, who do we talk to, or who is going to take on the case.”
A year ago, we were concerned that defensiveness from the state government and the guard could stand in the way of much-needed reform. Instead, the recent report demonstrates responsiveness, not defensiveness, from officials. This is a positive development, and one we strongly believe was made possible by the female soldiers who stepped forward.
Their bravery has made a difference. The state’s action moving forward, however, cannot be solely dependent on the continued strength of survivors.
Policymakers and officials must be strong for them, too. Soldier experiences and perspectives must continue to inform the state and guard’s response, surely. But there is a collective responsibility to protect guard members from sexual assault and harassment, and if it does happen, ensure a transparent and accountable process. Guard members are brave enough for stepping up to serve; they shouldn’t also have to be brave in response to assault and harassment.
We are encouraged that Mills has asked the advisory council to continue meeting on a regular basis. This recent set of recommendations from the advisory is one step forward, not mission accomplished. As before, it will take continued work and follow through to make sure recommendations are being implemented and are accomplishing their goals. Members of the Maine Army National Guard — past, present and future — deserve nothing less.