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Female soldiers have bravely shared their experience facing sexual assault and harassment in the Maine National Guard, both to the Bangor Daily News and to state lawmakers. That bravery continues to inspire action, most recently through proposed legislation that deserves overwhelming support in Augusta.
Lawmakers, Gov. Janet Mills and guard leadership have taken several steps since the BDN first published its “Unguarded” series in 2021 about the handling of sexual assault and harassment within the Maine Army National Guard. For example, Mills established the Advisory Council on Military Sexual Trauma, which released a promising set of more than 20 initial recommendations in December 2022 to help the Maine National Guard improve its response to sexual assault.
Now it is time for state lawmakers to act on those recommendations.
Some of the recommendations can be made administratively, but others require changes in state statute. That is why Rep. Morgan Rielly, a Democrat from Westbrook, introduced LD 1783. The bill would codify several of the steps proposed by the advisory council.
“The creation of this bill is due in part to past efforts from survivors of military sexual trauma and the advocates who are working to support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable,” Rielly, who also led a successful legislative effort last year to review and improve oversight of the guard, told the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee at a May 1 hearing. “LD 1783 is a continuation of what the prior committee started during the 130th Legislature.”
This newest bill is the ongoing and necessary work to improve how the Maine National Guard prevents and addresses sexual assault would take several steps forward. It would require an annual report from Maine guard leadership to provide certain data to the committee related to sexual assault and harassment, establish paid leave for guard members who report being a victim of sexual assault or harassment within the guard (as well as leave for the alleged perpetrator), and would provide ongoing funding for a military sexual trauma liaison, among other steps.
Importantly, though unsurprisingly, several members of the governor’s advisory council also testified in support of LD 1783 last week.
One of those council members, Maeghan Maloney, the district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset Counties, shared something an unnamed former guard member told her about the changes proposed in LD 1783.
“‘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.”
This is both powerful and infuriating. It is infuriating in part because Maine needs people like this veteran, and clearly the system has failed them in the past. It is powerful because it shows the opportunity lawmakers and guard leaders have to improve the situation.
Noticeably absent from the list of people who testified in support of LD 1783 last week was Maj. Gen. Douglas Farnham, the Maine National Guard’s adjutant general. Farnham spoke to the committee about sexual assault and harassment being “simply incompatible with military service,” about ongoing collabortation at the state and federal levels on this issue, but testified neither for nor against the bill.
Given that the guard’s own provost marshal chaired the advisory council, and the initial recommendations from that advisory council led to this bill, we expected to see guard leadership testify definitively in favor of the legislation. We shared our disappointment with the guard’s public affairs office, which further explained that the adjutant general testifying neither for nor against a bill is common when that bill may include a fiscal note — citing the adjutant general’s dual role as both a federally recognized officer and a state commissioner.
“The Maine National Guard is committed to implementing the recommendations of LD 1783 effectively and in a timely manner,” Maine National Guard Public Affairs Officer Maj. Carl Lamb told us in a May 4 statement. We appreciate the clarification. This commitment must carry over to the committee work session and to the Maine House and Senate floor, where lawmakers should overwhelmingly pass this bill.
Passing LD 1783 and quickly implementing it would be yet another step in the right direction to protect guard members from sexual assault and harassment, and to ensure transparency and accountability if it does happen. Ongoing work will remain, but by following through on these initial recommendations, policymakers and guard leadership can continue to build on growing collaboration and positive momentum.
And once again, let’s not forget that this momentum had been made possible first and foremost by the brave soldiers who came forward to share their stories in the first place. State leaders continue to owe them sustained action.