Advocates for military sexual assault survivors urged state lawmakers to enact key recommendations from a special council created by Gov. Janet Mills last year to improve how the Maine National Guard responds to sexual assault and sexual harassment in its ranks.
The Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee for Veterans and Legal Affairs heard from lawmakers, domestic and sexual violence survivor advocates, and a sitting district attorney who all testified in favor of a bill aimed to codify in law recommendations that came from the permanent Advisory Council on Military Sexual Trauma.
Mills established the council last 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 council in turn issued a report in December 2022 that identified 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.
In response, Rep. Morgan Rielly, D-Westbrook, introduced legislation this session that would implement those recommendations.
Specifically, the proposed law would require an annual report to the joint standing committee from the adjutant general in December of every year that would include:
— The aggregate number of new members of the Maine National Guard broken down by gender in the previous year.
— The aggregate discharge numbers of the Maine National Guard by gender, as well as the reason for discharge.
— The aggregate promotion rates, broken down by gender.
— The number of restricted and unrestricted reports of sexual assault and harassment in the guard, broken down by gender.
— The percentages of Maine National Guard members, broken down by gender, who reported sexual harassment and sexual assault, measured by an anonymous survey.
The bill would establish paid leave for full-time or part-time members of the Maine National Guard who report being sexually assaulted or harassed by another member of the guard, as well as paid leave for the alleged perpetrator.
The legislation also would modify the Victims’ Compensation Fund statute to specify that an unrestricted report of sexual assault or harassment made to the Maine National Guard would be considered as a crime reported to a law enforcement officer. Additionally, it would provide ongoing funding for programming and a military sexual trauma liaison.
During public testimony on the legislation, Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney shared the experience of one former member of the Maine National Guard with legislators.
Maloney said the veteran, whom she did not identify, told her that if the recommendations were in place sooner the veteran would have likely remained in the guard.
“‘If those changes had been in place when I was in the guard, I wouldn’t be a veteran. I would still be in uniform,’” Maloney said the veteran told her. “[The veteran] went on to explain the greatest regret of her life was leaving the guard after 12 years of service.”
Maj. Gen Douglas A. Farnham, who oversees the Maine National Guard, offered testimony neither for nor against the legislation. In his testimony, Farnham said the National Guard sees the state as a key partner in addressing the important issue.
“To be clear, there is no room for sexual assault and harassment in the military,” he said. “It is simply incompatible with military service, and it is not compatible with the values of the Maine National Guard.”
Farnham told the legislators that there has been a consistent evolution of the federal prevention and response programs targeting the elimination of sexual misconduct in the military.
Over the last year, the Maine National Guard hosted inspectors from the National Guard Bureau, the federal agency responsible for the administration of the guard, who found Maine’s programs comply with federal policies and guidance, he said.
Additionally, the inspectors praised the Maine National Guard’s hiring of a full-time provost marshal, Farnham said.
Farnham was pushed by Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, as to why the testimony he presented was neither for nor against the proposed legislation.
In response, Farnham said when he wears his uniform he and the Maine National Guard are neither for nor against what the Legislature does. He said unless the legislation is a direct attack against the guard, it tends not to have an opinion for or against legislation.
Farnham emphasized in his testimony that there are many changes coming from the federal government about how to respond to sexual misconduct. Those changes and the changes being proposed in the Maine legislation leave the Maine National Guard pressed for enough time to enact the changes meaningfully, he said.
“It can only be implemented so fast,” he said. “It is coming fast and furious.”