State Rep. Morgan Rielly, D-Westbrook, a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs, is bringing renewed interest to improving the handling of sexual assaults and harassment within the Maine National Guard. Lawmakers were poised to pass new laws in 2013 but the effort faded without action. Rielly, shown here in November, passed a bill in early 2021 requiring the guard to provide an updated report on cases to the committee. Credit: Garrick Hoffman / BDN

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a three-part investigation by the Bangor Daily News into the Maine Army National Guard’s handling of sexual assaults. If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741. 

A nationwide effort to improve the handling of sexual assaults and harassment in the military could drive change at the Maine National Guard.

Although solutions vary among state guards and the federal government, military and legislative leaders across the country are fighting to increase transparency and improve oversight into the handling of cases within the ranks.

In Maine, the change is long overdue, current and former guard members told the Bangor Daily News.

A months-long BDN investigation found a spike in substantiated sexual assault cases over the last two years at the Maine Army National Guard, which has at times been permissive of sexual harassment, lenient toward perpetrators and dismissive of victims who come forward with complaints.

The investigation comes as national guards across the country grapple with scandals over the handling of sexual assaults and harassment. Investigations in Alaska, Wisconsin, Florida, California, Minnesota, West Virginia and Vermont have led to changes and the removal of leaders in recent years.

Despite the nationwide reckoning, however, Maine has done little to address the problems since 2013, when lawmakers asked the guard for a report on sexual assault in its ranks but then took no action.

Maine lawmakers will get another chance to address the problems early next year, when the state’s national guard has been ordered to produce an updated report and recommendations for change.

“Sexual assault and harassment are always inexcusable,” said state Rep. Morgan Rielly, D-Westbrook, a first-term member of the Joint Standing Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs who has led the renewed effort in the Legislature.

“We need to work to make it safer for everyone to be able to safely report instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” he said, “so that, one, we can understand the scope of the problem that you’re looking at right now, and two, offer victims the support services that they need, and three, hold the perpetrators accountable.”

The lack of oversight from state lawmakers is not unique to Maine, said Dwight Stirling, a reserve judge advocate general in the California National Guard and founder and chief executive of the nonprofit Center for Law and Military Policy, a think tank dedicated to strengthening legal protections for service members. 

“It’s so hard to hold the attention of the Legislature with regards to its responsibility to oversee state national guards,” Stirling said. “You never get to where there is true accountability.”

The fact that soldiers are still facing the same issues around sexual assault and harassment that were identified decades ago is a policy failure, said former Jennifer Norris, a retired member of the Maine Air National Guard who testified before Congress in 2013 about surviving multiple sexual assaults and retaliation while serving. 

“We know that the problem has been there and we’ve failed to do something about it,” said Norris, who is now a military crime historian and policy analyst. “It breaks my heart these women have gone through the exact same thing I went through back in 1996.” 

The Maine Legislature should have acted back in 2013, Norris said. 

“They could have done the right thing.” 

The renewed efforts in Maine came just months before a scathing report on sexual assault and harassment across the U.S. military, published this summer by an independent commission, offered recommendations that could serve as a blueprint for Maine lawmakers.

The Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military concluded that the military’s rank and file has lost confidence in leadership’s ability to do anything substantive about sexual assault and harassment. 

“Trust is broken across the force between junior enlisted service members and the senior leaders who command them,” the commission wrote. “After decades of applying Band-Aids to fix a broken culture, these efforts have done little but maintain the status quo …

“Too many leaders — at all echelons of the enterprise — continue to believe that sexual violence is a distraction from the military’s core warfighting mission, and therefore not something it must take seriously.”

Gov. Janet Mills said the guard’s leader, Maj. Gen. Douglas A. Farnham, told her that leaders are working to reduce sexual violence in its ranks.

“General Farnham has reassured me that the Maine National Guard will take every appropriate step to root out sexual assault and harassment, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to support survivors,” Mills said in a statement.

“My administration, including the Maine National Guard, does not tolerate assault or harassment, and we are committed to taking immediate, responsive action to any reports brought to our attention, both to pursue accountability for the perpetrator and to provide justice and support for the survivor,” Mills said.

Mills cited a 2019 bill she signed that allowed the guard’s Office of the Provost Marshal to receive confidential criminal history records, which she said would help the office “investigate allegations of misconduct among members of the guard.”
The legislation, An Act To Amend Certain Laws Related to Members of the Military and the Maine National Guard, did not cite sexual assault specifically.

Legislative inaction

Maine officials, meanwhile, have struggled to create a system of accountability for the state guard.

Lawmakers began working to address the handling of sexual assaults and harassment in 2013, after Congress inserted several measures into a defense spending bill. The new provisions called for discharge of anyone convicted of a sex crime, required officials to collect data related to sexual assault and harassment, launched new training for commanders and created special victims units.

The congressional action came shortly after the National Guard Bureau created the Office of Complex Investigations in 2012 to handle administrative investigations that were not criminal in nature or that had been declined by local law enforcement.

The changes brought discussions in the Maine Legislature about how to respond to the new federal requirements.

Lawmakers eventually passed legislation asking the Maine National Guard to submit a one-time report assessing whether state law allowed for the adequate prosecution of sexual assault and the proper treatment of victims. They also instructed the guard to include recommendations for new laws, and designated the Joint Standing Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs to craft a bill to align Maine with the new federal guidelines.

But the effort seems to have been abandoned soon after without any explanation from lawmakers.

The guard’s report was turned over in 2014 without any recommended legislation. Lawmakers never crafted any bills in response to the guard’s report. And the Legislature likewise has not taken steps to provide basic oversight and reporting in line with the federal requirements. A suggested independent review panel was never created.

Renewed efforts are now underway at the state and federal level.

Rielly won passage of a bill earlier this year that requires the guard to provide an updated report by March 2022. And in Congress, this year’s defense spending bill passed the House and is pending in the Senate with several provisions long championed by advocates, including one that would remove the decision on whether to prosecute sex crimes out of the chain of command and turn it over to independent military prosecutors.

The proposed bill also calls for President Joe Biden to make sexual harassment a standalone offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  

If the bill becomes law, it would represent an important win for advocates of change, said U.S. Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree

“If we are able to move that this year, it will be the most progress we’ve made in the last two decades on an issue that is really devastating and frankly, in the long run, costly for the military and for so many individuals who are impacted,” Pingree said.

A scathing report

The Independent Review Commission, created by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shortly after he took office earlier this year, has recommended more than 80 measures to improve the handling of sexual assaults and harassment in the military.

The commission was led by Lynn Rosenthal, president of The Center for Family Safety and Healing, and included military veterans and experts. More than 100 service members were interviewed for the report.

The commission recommended more independence for prosecutors and victim advocates by taking them out from under the chain of command, and said leaders should be held accountable for the climate they have created in their units.

Soldiers who commit sexual assault or harassment should be kicked out of the military, it noted, although the commission acknowledged that “in certain limited situations, an opportunity for rehabilitation should be available.”

It also calls for transparency measures that would require all the armed services to publish the nature and results of disciplinary actions related to sexual assault and harassment.

The recommendations have been endorsed by the defense secretary, and some are in the process of being implemented. Others will require legislation from Congress, including a provision that would require the National Guard Bureau to perform regular inspections of state and territorial guard units and their prevention efforts. 

In addition to handling individual investigations, the National Guard Bureau can conduct statewide assessments of the climate and culture of a state guard, as well as how it handles sexual misconduct allegations.

To date, the office has completed 13 such investigations into state and territorial guard units, but none has looked at the Maine National Guard.

The governor and the guard’s adjutant general can call for an investigation at any time at no cost to state taxpayers, although assessments at this point have been halted while the guard bureau reviews its procedures.

Caught off guard

Investigations in other states have led to changes.  

In 2014, the adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard was forced to resign after a bureau investigation found that the guard’s command had lost the confidence of its members, had not properly investigated sexual assault cases and had failed to implement a working sexual harassment program. 

The Alaska National Guard responded with a series of reforms, many recommended by the bureau’s investigators. 

Officials required that the entire force, for example, receive sexual assault harassment and prevention training, which barely 1 percent had received.

Other reforms included improving victim confidentiality, implementing open-door policies for commanders, making sure victims were alerted to updates in their cases and launching a tracking system for discipline that shared the consequences of sexual assault and harassment throughout the organization. 

In 2020 a follow-up report, state investigators found improvements.

“We determined that there is a renewed trust in the AKNG’s command and improvement in the AKNG culture,” the report concluded.

A lack of transparency and inconsistent punishments for offenders were among the problems identified in the Wisconsin National Guard by bureau investigators. A 2019 report concluded the guard had mishandled 33 sexual assault cases, and called for leaders to publicly demonstrate a willingness to crack down on misconduct. 

“Failure to effectively communicate the consequences of misconduct creates the perception that the leadership lacks either the moral high ground or willingness to take appropriate steps when disciplinary matters arise,” investigators wrote in their report.

Bureau investigations in Wisconsin and Vermont found that national guards there had disregarded federal regulations in their handling of sexual assaults, conducting their own internal investigations well after 2012, when new regulations required the cases be turned over to independent investigators at the National Guard Bureau.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers asked the guard for an improvement plan to bring the state into alignment with federal regulations. Evers approved a plan last year that requires the guard to “track and monitor misconduct, coordinate disciplinary actions and disseminate information down the chain of command to individual Soldiers and Airmen.” 

In Vermont, where the state guard is one of only four that is smaller than Maine’s, investigators found a perception among the ranks that the guard had a system of “good old boys” that exercised favoritism in promotions and discipline.

Maine Army National Guard members, part of Taskforce Maine, help Vermont National Guard members in 2011 to repair a washed out roadway near Pittsfield, Vermont. Credit: Courtesy of the 172nd Public Affairs Detachment in Vermont

The investigator’s assessment, delivered this year, concluded the Vermont National Guard “suffers from a lack of transparency at all levels” when it comes to the handling of misconduct.

Since the report was delivered, the Vermont guard has updated its policies and procedures, improved coordination among sexual assault response coordinators, increased staffing of victim advocate positions and expanded training for commanders, said Maj. J. Scott Detweiler, the Vermont National Guard spokesperson.

“The Vermont National Guard will continuously evaluate how it can create and sustain a culture and climate in which all members may thrive,” Detweiler said. 

Also this year, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signed legislation modernizing many aspects of state laws governing the guard. It included a requirement that guard leadership deliver an annual report on sexual assault and harassment to the Legislature. 

In California and Nevada, lawmakers recently added sexual harassment as an offense to their states’ Code of Military Justice. And in 2014, California began requiring that its guard hand over sexual assault investigations to civilian authorities

In recent years, the Maine Army National Guard has improved how it prevents and responds to sexual assault and harassment, spokesperson Maj. Carl Lamb said.

It sought out and delivered additional training from the National Guard Bureau on sexual discrimination and harassment this spring, and recently established a provost marshal office to improve coordination with local law enforcement.

The organization has also made “significant strides” in partnering with outside organizations to provide support for victims and survivors, Lamb said.

The Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault gave Kartika Wright, the guard’s former sexual assault response coordinator, a Special Service Award for her prevention and response efforts when she retired earlier this year.

Rumor mills

A lack of transparency and inconsistent punishment for perpetrators in the Maine Army National Guard, however, has led to distrust among the ranks, current and former members said.

Disciplinary actions for sexual misconduct “are really arbitrary and don’t send a message,” said a mid-level male member of the guard who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions.

“At some point you’re going to have to make a public example of someone,” he said.

A lack of information creates a vacuum that is often filled by rumors, said a female guard member who made a substantiated sexual assault allegation against a soldier in 2020. The BDN does not name victims of sexual assault.

“Soldiers make up their own stories,” she said. “There are rumors like, ‘This guy got kicked out for no reason at all because she lied.’”

The Maine guard has recently taken some steps toward transparency. Starting this summer, the guard began publishing information on disciplinary action in a quarterly bulletin that Col. Blair Tinkham directed be “copiously shared” and posted on all unit bulletin boards, according to internal guard emails.

The first edition reported that an officer and a non-commissioned officer were reprimanded for violating the Army’s sexual harassment program. It also showed that several members of the guard were given other-than-honorable discharges — essentially kicked out of the guard — for operating under the influence or testing positive for drugs.

No one in the Maine guard has received a dishonorable discharge for any reason in at least 20 years — if ever. State officials could provide no cases in which officials sought a court-martial, which is required for a soldier to be dishonorably discharged.

Transparency into how leadership handles sexual assault allegations is key to combatting a culture of secrecy in state guards, said Col. Don Christensen, a former Air Force prosecutor and president of Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit group dedicated to ending sexual violence in the military. 

“There’s very little transparency to the process,” Christensen said. “Decisions are often made behind closed doors with no understanding of why they were made that way.”

Launching a ‘buddy’ program

While other states struggle with sexual assaults, a South Dakota National Guard intelligence officer has created a program aimed at preventing assaults by using the language and concepts of combat to teach soldiers to defend each other.

The Wyoming and South Dakota national guards are in the process of rolling out Buddy Aid, the program first developed by Maj. Bridget Flannery while she was serving in Afghanistan in 2012.

In Buddy Aid, soldiers are trained to be ready to respond to victims of sexual assault as they would a soldier hurt on the battlefield. Those who commit sexual assault are described not as “perpetrators” but as “enemies.” 

Using the language of war for sexual violence is way to use skills soldiers already have to combat an ever-present threat, Flannery said. 

“We talk to soldiers and airmen the way they are used to being spoken to,” Flannery said. “We talk about rules of engagement. Those aren’t words that have historically been used in this fight.”

Buddy Aid teaches service members to check in with each other if they notice unusual behaviors and how to respond to someone who tells them they have been sexually assaulted. It also teaches them that by communicating with each other about the threat of sexual assault and demonstrating they know how to respond and react to it, service members are presenting themselves as “hard targets,” Flannery said. 

“The bad guys seek soft targets,” Flannery said. “We teach soldiers and airmen to demonstrate we are hard targets by demonstrating that we know sexual assault is a threat and that we are prepared to respond to it.”

The program won the National Guard Bureau’s 2020 Promoting Excellence in Prevention Award, and Flannery has started working with the bureau’s training center in Little Rock, Arkansas, to further develop it.

Looking ahead

Eyes are now on lawmakers in Augusta and Washington, D.C., to see if changes will be made for soldiers.

In Maine, it took a first-term lawmaker to revisit the problem of sexual assault.

After winning a seat in the Maine House in 2020, Rielly, who has written a book about Maine’s World War II veterans, reviewed legislative efforts to curb sexual assault within the Maine Army National Guard.

He realized the Legislature hadn’t done much since 2013, so he wrote a bill that became law earlier this year asking for an updated report from the guard by March.

“I noticed there were a lot of things that were like, ‘this could be beneficial,’ or ‘this could be extended further,’ or ‘this could be valuable and important,’” Rielly said. “There were a lot of these ‘could-bes’ that I wanted them to look back over and come back to us on. Because if we can do it, then we should.” 

Survivors of sexual assault should likewise not be forgotten, military experts said.

Support and care for survivors in the military is inconsistent in terms of “quality and professionalism,” with barriers to accessing assistance, “ignorance” from leadership about sexual trauma and outdated training, the Independent Review Commission concluded.

“Victim care and support across the Services needs serious repair and attention,” the commission found.

It can also be hard for survivors to access military benefits. For example, a 2018 report found the Veterans Benefits Administration had failed to properly process nearly half the claims related to sexual trauma that it had denied the previous year. Last month, Pingree reintroduced a bill to reform the military sexual trauma claims process. 

Former Maine guard member Meg Church now works full time for the South Carolina Army National Guard. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Women who experienced sexual assault and harassment in the Maine Army National Guard said changes are necessary — not to punish perpetrators but to improve the guard.

“We’re not some band of sisters out to get every man fired and take the whole thing down — that was not on the list of things I wanted to do when I joined the Army,” said Meg Church, a former Maine guard member who was harassed and now works for the South Carolina Army National Guard.

“Just leave us alone and let us work.”

This investigation was produced with the editing support of the Investigative Editing Corps.

The Bangor Daily News’ three-part series on the Maine Army National Guard is available at bangordailynews.com.

Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.