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Council offers recommendations to improve Maine National Guard's response to sexual assault

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Troy R. Bennett
/
Bangor Daily News
A female soldier in the Maine Army National Guard is leaving her dreams of a military career after being sexually assaulted by another guard member. She wants the guard to improve its handling of sexual assault and harassment cases to protect female soldiers.

A state advisory council finds that Maine National Guard members fear retaliation, lack confidence in their chain of command and worry that they'll be re-traumatized if they report instances of sexual harassment and assault within the ranks.

The council, which Gov. Janet Mills formed earlier this year in the wake Bangor Daily News reports about sexual harassment in the Guard, offers about two dozen recommendations.

They include informing district attorneys of sexual assault activity within the Guard, so that those offices can pursue potential criminal prosecution and coordinate help for victims through local advocates. The Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MECASA) would serve as a formal liaison between victims and the military.

Involving community advocacy groups such as MECASA in what has typically been a closed military system should help change the Guard's culture, said Rebecca Cornell du Houx, who runs the Sisters in Arms Center, a women veterans non-profit, and sat on the governor's advisory council.

"I do think the Guard was moving in the direction, and has been moving in the direction, of developing a safer environment for soldiers to train and to complete missions," she said. "The community involvement enhances that."

The panel also suggests that the Guard should find ways to expand access to outside mental health specialists or offer services from the Department of Veterans Affairs to active-duty members.

Mills said she's reviewing the recommendations and has asked the council to continue meeting throughout the year.