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Sexual assault survivors push for external review of Maine National Guard

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.
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.

Sexual harassment and assault survivors from the Maine National Guard spent more than two hours detailing their experiences to the legislature's veterans and legal affairs committee Friday afternoon.

They say misogyny, harassment and retaliation are deeply embedded within the guard's culture. Lawmakers are considering a bill they hope will bring more accountability to the organization, as many survivors believe the Maine National Guard is too small to police itself.

Their stories were familiar. Some spoke on behalf of others.

Over and over, they described instances of harassment and assault in the Maine National Guard, the loneliness and isolation they felt after it happened and then the fear of retaliation once they reported it up the chain of command.

Aleigh Suffern, who served in the Maine National Guard for 13 years before she retired this earlier year, said she received unwanted attention from a non-commissioned officer.

"I tried reporting it up my chain of command, and I would get responses like, 'Oh that's just how he is, just ignore him,' or, 'Well it's because you're pretty.' It seemed to always be my fault," she said. "It's my fault that I'm receiving this attention that I didn't want."

Suffern says her performance in the guard was affected, and she became depressed and tried to seek help. She said she was forced to give up tuition assistance and lost military benefits.

Other women have similar stories. One survivor says she was denied a job opportunity because Guard leadership saw her as a "walking sexual harassment case." Others say they've struggled with post traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts. Two survivors who testified have transferred to the Guard in other states because of their experiences in Maine.

Rebecca Cornell du Houx, a commissioned officer in the Maine National Guard, runs non-profit support group for former women service members. She believes an independent investigation of the Maine National Guard is essential, because the organization is too small and can't be trusted to police itself.

"Everybody knows everybody, and the higher ranking you are, the more people you know and the more power you have," she said. "If you commit assault or just are a toxic leader, there's less ability for any survivor to speak out in that circumstance."

Lawmakers are now considering what options they have for seeking an outside review of the Maine National Guard. One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Morgan Rielly, D-Westbrook, proposed having the Maine attorney general do the investigation.

The bill could instead seek an outside review from the National Guard's Office of Complex Investigations or from another independent organization.

The legislation would also require the Maine National Guard to enter into an agreement with a statewide coalition against sexual assault and harassment. The coalition would provide services to victims, including a channel for individuals to report harassment and assault that occur within the Maine National Guard.

And the bill calls for a new military sexual trauma advisory council, which will recommend ways the Maine National Guard can improve how it responds to and prevents sexual harassment and assault within its ranks.

Members of the Mills administration say work is already underway to put the legislative recommendations in action.

Gov. Janet Mills created the new advisory council through an executive order earlier this week.

Maj. Gen. Douglas Farnham, the state's top military official, said the National Guard's investigation unit has agreed to work with Maine on an independent review.

"Every single case that comes across my desk or that I hear about feels like a kick in the gut," he said Friday after hearing testimony from survivors. "The last three hours prior to the break was one three-hour kick in the gut. I just don't want anybody to be at all confused or question that hearing those stories of those survivors was not extremely difficult, and we are as committed as you are to making it right."

Rielly said he believes the legislature needs to codify the new advisory council, so it endures beyond the current administration.

The committee may consider other ideas as well. Rielly suggested, for example, the legislature could create a fund for survivors who have lost military benefits or need help paying for therapy and counseling.

If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the 24/7 Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-871-7741.