Service ribbons adorn the uniform worn by a Maine Army National Guard member. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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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.

Morgan Rielly of Wesbrook is serving his first term in the Maine House of Representatives. He is a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs. Rebecca Cornell du Houx is the executive director of the nonprofit Sisters in Arms Center, a licensed clinical social worker and an officer in the Maine Army National Guard.

By now, many people have read the harrowing stories from survivors of sexual trauma within the Maine National Guard’s ranks. What many people do not know is how hard survivors have worked to pass legislation that protects and supports our National Guard members, despite fears of retribution from their perpetrators and other community members.

In May of last year, LD 625 was signed into law. The law directed the Maine Adjutant General, our state’s senior military officer, to submit a report outlining current practices and suggesting legislation regarding the investigation, prosecution and adjudication of sexual assault and harassment cases by members of the Maine National Guard, along with support for survivors. The report included 14 updates to recommendations originally proposed by the Maine Legislature in 2013. Among them is the proposed creation of an independent review panel to examine sexual assault investigations and prosecutions.

The report and stories of survivors in the media made clear that action was needed, and that an independent investigation was necessary, which was called for on the day the National Guard delivered its report. This session, survivors and members of the Maine Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs (VLA) Committee discussed how to best address this issue. During a public hearing, survivors courageously shared their stories, and because of their work, LD 2029, An Act To Enhance the Prevention of and Response to Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the Maine National Guard, has been signed into law and will go into effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns.

While continued work is necessary, this law provides a much-needed step forward. First and foremost, the Maine Attorney General will be tasked with reviewing the manner in which law enforcement agencies and prosecutors investigate and prosecute those who have been accused of committing acts of sexual assault and harassment. This independent review is necessary to ensure protocols are being abided by and discrepancies are brought forth. By February 2023, the Attorney General will submit a report to the VLA Committee.

Beyond identifying current issues within the Maine National Guard, Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order to establish a new advisory council, which will recommend ways the Guard can improve how it responds to and prevents military sexual trauma. Critically, the council must include a survivor and a member of an organization representing survivors. We need to make sure their voices are heard, they have a role and that their seats on the council are permanent.

The advisory council will follow up on issues addressed in the report, ensure that survivors are connected to all available resources, designate a point of contact for survivors seeking to report problems they have experienced during the investigative process and improve the Maine National Guard’s response to these acts of abuse. The council will further coordinate state and local law enforcement, prosecutors and National Guard personnel as these entities respond to individual cases.

Concurrently, advocacy organizations will be working on the ground to continue to support survivors. Sisters in Arms Center (SiA Center), a nonprofit that provides legal and therapeutic support for women veterans and their children, expanded its mission to include an advocacy committee. Several survivors who courageously testified in favor of LD 2029 are now part of these advocacy efforts and continue to work with VLA members to ensure future follow-through of LD 2029.

The acts of abuse that have been committed are things that no one should ever have to face, whether inside or outside of a workplace environment. One survivor said in her testimony: “When we wear this uniform, we should be able to trust our fellow soldiers to the left and right.”

LD 2029 will hopefully start to rebuild this trust by holding perpetrators accountable and preventing military sexual trauma from happening in the first place. Our National Guard members swore an oath to serve us, and in turn, it is time we serve them.