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Bangor Daily News series details 'toxic,' 'permissive' culture around sexual assault in the Maine National Guard

Sawyer Loftus
The sun shines down, illuminating the American Flag and Airborne patches on a member of the U.S. Army, in Bangor, Nov. 11, 2021.

Bangor Daily News ran a series of stories last week detailing failures by the Maine Army National Guard to respond to sexual assaults.

Callie Ferguson and Josh Keefe reported on the issue for the Bangor Daily News, and they both spoke with Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about the series.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Gratz: What first brought this issue to your attention, Callie?

Ferguson: Late last winter, I actually received an email from a soldier in the Maine Army National Guard who was concerned about the issue of sexual assault and harassment in the organization. And that soldier described the problem as rampant. And that one of the issues was that leadership appeared to be very out of touch with the experience of rank and file and, you know, military sexual violence, which as you and likely others know, is a well-established problem.

Keefe: We talked to a lot of soldiers who described a culture that was toxic, and permissive of a lot of sexual harassment. So we had a lot of these sort of subjective evaluations of the problem. But what we really needed to get was firmer documentation of a lot of this stuff. So we were able to get reports from a group inside the National Guard Bureau. And we were able to get redacted reports, and what they indicated was, in some cases, there appeared to be people that were aware, and no one did anything. We also got sexual harassment investigations from 2013, where the investigator basically said, like, 'You guys have a problem here.'

Gratz: And your stories did detail a couple of cases.

Ferguson: We got the broader report into one case that was investigated last year in which a former member of a Bangor aviation unit made a complaint against a well-respected pilot. And the findings of that report detail how she, you know, was subjected to a kind of nightmarish nine-month period of groping, harassment, attempts to kiss her without her consent. And then a lot of this played out on base and in view of other soldiers who, in the report, you know, told investigators that they noticed she felt uncomfortable, checked in with her afterward. And something that, you know, as reporters, was kind of like a chilling moment was interviewing her and hearing her recount reading that report when she finally got the findings, because it was only then, you know, after experiencing all this, that she realized how many other people were kind of aware. And we also tell stories of a lot of women who didn't come forward with a complaint because of this culture, because they feared that their complaints would not be taken seriously or worse, they could face professional or personal blowback.

Gratz: So in the case where someone did make a complaint, how, if at all, did the Guard deal with that?

Keefe: We're not really totally sure. That's part of the problem. There's very little transparency in how these things are dealt with across the military. Different investigations and different state guard units have all suggested, like, 'You guys need to basically be transparent about the misconduct in your ranks and what happens to the people who are accused of it.' Because there's basically this void that just gets filled with rumors. But in that particular case, we know he did eventually leave the Guard. We know — because the Guard has never dishonorably discharged anybody in recent memory — that he didn't face any punitive action. The state of Maine has a Code of Military Justice. Sexual assault is a crime in that and it can dishonorably discharge and court martial people. And it has not.

Ferguson: It is sort of unclear. We sort of have a picture through a series of keyholes. And we heard everything from, you know, 'I made a complaint to my supervisor, and I never heard back about it,' to, 'I went through a full investigation, and it was adjudicated by the National Guard Bureau,' or, 'I went to police.' We uncovered some criminal investigations as well. And I still don't know how, you know, that soldier was ultimately separated from the agency. It seems like one thing we know for sure is that the handling is very inconsistent.

Gratz: Is there any other arm of government that is providing any oversight of the Guard in these instances?

There's the National Guard Bureau and the Department of Defense. They're more of a clearinghouse, an information clearinghouse. It's the state, the state of Maine — Gov. Janet Mills is the head of the Maine National Guard and the Legislature has a committee that's supposed to oversee the Guard. And part of our reporting found that, I mean, they just haven't really done anything. They tried to basically ask the Guard for a report on sexual assault in 2013. The Guard gave it to them, and they didn't do anything with it. But there is a bill that passed last year that is asking for another one of those reports. So some of the lawmakers we talked to are hopeful that changes will come once that report is delivered in March.

Gratz: I was gonna say, have there been any signs and all that the Guard is acting on its own to improve its approach to sexual assault complaints.

Ferguson: That's a good question. We did, of course, reach out to the Guard for their responses. And they, you know, were very adamant that they take this issue very seriously, that they are doing everything in their power. Initially for the reporting, we reached out to Adjutant Gen. Douglas Farnham for an interview and he declined to sit down with us. We have reached out to request another interview since and have not heard back because, you know, we would like to know if there will be any response and we have heard from a lot of current and former members of the Guard since our reporting has been published asking what will happen next.