Navigation
  •  

Female Maine guard soldiers face retaliation after reporting sexual assault and harassment

Military Criminal Justice (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Samuel Morse/released)

There are nicknames for women who speak up.

Women who aren’t afraid to tell another soldier to stop making inappropriate sexual comments become that female. If men suspect she might alert the chain of command to violations of the organization’s equal opportunity policies, she’s an EO queen.

The nicknames are hardly the worst of it.

Women in the Maine Army National Guard have suffered bullying, smears, perceived indifference from leadership, secretive investigations and other negative repercussions after they reported fellow soldiers for sexual assault and harassment, the Bangor Daily News found after a months-long investigation into the guard’s handling of cases.

The pattern reflects an institutional failure to protect female soldiers from retaliation after they come forward, worsening the plight of those already grappling with physical and psychological trauma and feelings of betrayal, current and former service members said.

“It definitely affects the success of women,” said one woman who is in the process of being medically discharged from the guard because of post-traumatic stress she developed after being assaulted.

“If your career doesn’t end because of retaliation, it breaks your trust. People knew it was happening and chose not to protect me.”

The BDN investigation found a predatory culture within the Maine Army National Guard where sexual assaults and harassment have continued largely unchecked for at least the past decade, driving women out of the service and even out of state.

The women said the fear of retaliation and professional blowback made them reluctant to report instances of harassment and assault and prompted accomplished female soldiers to leave the service because they didn’t feel safe. The BDN does not identify victims of sexual assault.

The guard did not provide details on the number of women who have left the guard in the last 10 years. But among the more than a half-dozen women who spoke to the BDN were a Soldier of the Year and others who earned commendations, promotions, spotless performance reviews and officer training, yet who said they had left the guard in part because of the handling of sexual assault and harassment.

“You’re indoctrinated into this weird world where you’re the one who’s wrong,” said Meg Church, a former full-time sergeant with the Maine Army National Guard who left the organization after filing a substantiated sexual harassment complaint in 2013. She now works full time for the South Carolina Army National Guard.

“I don’t know if it’s coming to a head now because there’s a different generation in the guard that isn’t putting up with it, but it’s been going on for a long time.”

The Maine Army National Guard’s permissive attitude toward sexual harassment stands out to Brian Kresge, who served as a staff sergeant in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard for more than a decade before transferring to the Maine Army National Guard in 2017. He left the Maine guard as a staff sergeant earlier this year.

In his Pennsylvania unit, anything that could have been interpreted as sexual harassment “was instantly knocked down,” he said.

But the Maine guard is different.

“I’ve never seen it so bad,” he said. “My sense was that the command was just completely detached from it or willfully blind … It was more, ‘Cover your eyes, cover your ears.'”

MONDAY Part 1: Sexual assaults of female soldiers have risen sharply in the Maine Army National Guard’s predatory culture

TUESDAY Part 2: Female soldiers who complain about sexual assaults and harassment face retaliation from within the Maine Army National Guard

WEDNESDAY Part 3: What can be done to fix the handling of sexual assaults in the Maine Army National Guard?

‘I just wanted it to stop’

For Church, the harassment began after her divorce in 2012.

She had recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan and was working full time for the guard in Bangor in human resources.

That’s when a guard supervisor started to send her sexually explicit text messages and emails from his military email account, and began making inappropriate comments directed at her during work hours, according to findings of an internal guard investigation.

At the time, his responsibilities included oversight of 15 soldiers assigned as sexual assault advocates to help victims. He had been trained to recognize “behaviors common to perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault,” according to the investigative report.

But he sent emails suggesting Church was performing sex acts to advance her career, told her he was naked in this office, asked about her sex life, joked about sex and suggested she send him photos of herself in a bathing suit, investigators found.

She told him repeatedly to stop, that she wasn’t interested and at one point told him to “go home to your wife,” she told the BDN.

She also made sure others knew what was happening. Sometimes she would call a fellow soldier at the Sanford Armory and put him on speakerphone for hours at a time if she was alone in her office, so that somebody else could hear the sexual comments the supervisor made to her while she was trying to work at her desk, the report said.

Eventually, he seemed to get the message that she wasn’t interested. That’s when he began trying to ruin her career, she said.

“I felt like he was trying to sabotage my career by telling anybody who would listen what a crap soldier I was,” Church said.

Church didn’t initially report the harassment because she was afraid it would hurt her standing in the guard. When she finally came forward, officials suggested she could ruin the career of a man who had a wife and kids at home — the same warning other female soldiers said they were given when they reported inappropriate behavior.

“I was like, ‘Maybe he should have thought about that? Why is that my problem?'” Church remembered. “I just wanted it to stop.”

In late 2013, military investigators concluded that the supervisor had engaged in conduct that “would be offensive to any reasonable person,” did not respect the boundaries Church had set, and had “alluded to a quid pro quo situation where sexual favors would impact career advancement,” according to the investigative report.

He initially lied to investigators about the harassment, then minimized his conduct when he later admitted it, according to the report, a copy of which was obtained by the BDN.

Despite his previous training, he didn’t appear “to grasp the magnitude of his responsibility for creating and perpetuating a hostile work environment,” the report concluded.

Investigators also substantiated the retaliation that followed, saying that the supervisor was overly critical of Church’s work after she rebuffed him and citing another member of the guard who said he had targeted Church for criticism over the previous year.

Investigators sounded a warning about the culture of the guard.

“The environmental factors which contribute to [the supervisor’s] comfort with emailing sexual innuendos and content, abusive language, pursuing a sexual relationship with a subordinate and displaying extremely unprofessional behavior, should be addressed,” the report said.

They recommended that guard leaders investigate the working environment by conducting a climate assessment and speaking to soldiers individually.

“It is likely that [the supervisor’s] behavior is a symptom of a larger problem,” the investigation concluded.

But those warnings appear to have gone unheeded. Church doesn’t remember the guard performing an assessment. In June, the BDN asked for the results of all climate assessments since 2010, but none has been provided.

The guard said it had forwarded the request to the National Guard Bureau.

‘It’s a betrayal’

Other women soldiers know the stories all too well.

They share them regularly with their female colleagues and often rely on each other instead of guard leadership for support. They pass along tips about which men to avoid.

And they blame the guard’s lax attitude toward assault and harassment for allowing the predatory culture to flourish.

“The overall problem, I think, is a culture that exists where people who wouldn’t necessarily act out perpetrator behavior feel safe doing so,” said one female guard member who was assaulted on base.

“They feel like they won’t be held accountable.”

When the #MeToo movement took off in late 2017, forcing a national reckoning around the problem of sexual assault and harassment, she was shocked when command staff joked about the movement at a meeting in Bangor.

“I remember feeling heartbroken,” she told the BDN. “You guys are supposed to be my family and here you are making fun of women who have gone through what I’ve gone through.

“It’s like a betrayal,” she said. “A repeated betrayal.”

Another woman overheard a group of male soldiers — who had just attended a briefing on sexual harassment — complaining about women who claim to be “one of the guys” but then report them for telling a joke.

Women who stuck up for themselves, she learned, were considered “snitches.”

Later, when she pressed criminal charges of sexual assault against another member of the guard in 2013, she was ostracized.

“I lost all mutual friends,” she said, “because his story was that I was asking for it, and that basically I was a bitch for reporting him for something that never happened in his mind.”

Female soldiers told the BDN that after filing complaints of assault or harassment they faced internal investigations by the guard, were the butt of jokes and failed to get leadership protection from their assailants. One woman did not get a pay raise accompanying a promotion until she raised the issue again with officials.

Fearing similar responses, other women said they endured pinching, slapping, groping and sexual advances without filing complaints. After a guardsman insinuated that he wanted a sexual encounter, one woman said she slept in a truck one night during training because she was afraid he’d find her.

A senior male soldier, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions, said guardsmen make comments about who they want to sleep with, what the women are wearing in the gym or “any of the stereotypical things people say about victims and women.”

Kresge, the staff sergeant who retired in March, said he didn’t feel as though “the command climate” treated women with the same respect and credibility as their male counterparts.

“I was just impressed by the quality of female soldiers I worked with there,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a climate that encourages women to succeed.”

Male and female soldiers expressed growing frustration that harassment is continuing even as the nation seeks greater accountability from military leaders. Reported cases of sexual assault and harassment have risen sharply in the Maine Army National Guard in the last two years, though officials said they “welcome” the increase because they believe the number of cases has gone up because women are more likely to report them.

And yet one member of the guard said that she is so certain that new female recruits will experience sexual harassment or assault that she tries to let them know early on that she is willing to listen.

“I’m like, if you need anything — stomp-stomp, wink-wink — please reach out,'” she said.

Deepening mistrust

After a former member of a Bangor aviation unit reported a well-liked pilot for brazen groping and harassment, she felt so disregarded by guard officials she eventually questioned if the organization had it out for her, too.

Her frustration began in the summer of 2020, when guard officials denied her a military protection order that would have required the pilot to stay away from her while he was under investigation. Instead, officials told her the guard didn’t use military protection orders, but would let her know his whereabouts so she could avoid him, she said.

But that didn’t happen. On Aug 20, 2020, a soldier serving as her victim’s advocate complained in an email to a supervisor overseeing the sexual assault prevention services that she was getting “zero updates” on the case, according to copies of emails.

“She still doesn’t feel safe at this point and is anxious and frustrated by not receiving any information,” the advocate wrote. “It seems all we are getting are excuses of why we are not getting resolution that have nothing to do with this actual case. These are real concerns and I don’t think they should be taken lightly.”

The supervisor said she would check on the concerns.

“Every situation is so different,” the supervisor wrote back. “I think everyone is trying to do this right by our Soldiers.”

The silence deepened the woman’s mistrust of the organization and exacerbated the post-traumatic stress symptoms she had developed after the assaults, causing panicky episodes that made her chest tighten and her heart race, she said.

Sometimes, she arrived for work meetings in Augusta more than an hour early so she could sit in her car until she calmed down enough to work, she said.

When she learned that the pilot was allowed to resign from the guard in September 2020, she felt betrayed, and her stress grew worse. Her therapist said military installations like the one where she worked had become a trigger for her post-traumatic stress, and she was allowed to work from home.

But that arrangement only caused more friction with her supervisors, who were not happy that she was working from home, she said. She worried leadership was angry with her for reporting the sexual assault.

She soon learned that she was under investigation, although the specific allegations were not disclosed at the time. In May, she received notice that she was being disciplined for talking about a different female soldier’s report of a sexual assault.

Military officials concluded that the conversation had breached that woman’s confidentiality, according to the notice.

She said she had no access to the woman’s confidential information.

“It’s a witch hunt,” she said. “I was talking about predatory behavior by a male soldier.”

As a result, she was stripped of her designation as one of the guard’s sexual assault advocates, the notice said. The document notified her that the guard had initiated another investigation that was later dropped. She still doesn’t know why she was investigated a second time.

About the same time, she realized her paychecks did not reflect a salary increase that had come with a recent promotion, which had initially been withheld while she was recovering from surgery but later approved. She eventually raised questions about her pay with officials, who pushed it through with back pay about three months later. A financial services officer noted that she “couldn’t explain why this didn’t go through before.”

In March, she filed a complaint with a hotline overseen by the Department of Defense’s inspector general’s office, alleging the guard had retaliated against her for initially denying her the promotion in August and for the internal investigation.

Federal officials did not substantiate the complaint, however, saying the guard had grounds to deny her promotion initially and had sought prior approval from the inspector general’s office before launching the investigation, according to the letter she received.

The Maine National Guard declined to comment about the specific allegations of retaliation, saying it was a personnel issue.

“Retaliation is not only contrary to our organizational values, it is illegal,” the guard said in written response to questions. “The Maine National Guard does not engage in illegal retaliation or reprisal activities against service members.”

She is set to be discharged from the guard later this month for medical reasons related to her assault. And for now, she has found a new military advocate — in the Air National Guard.

“I wanted someone who didn’t have a career to be afraid about,” she said. “I wanted someone who could stand up for me without fear of retaliation.”

Systemic problems

Sexual harassment and assault within the ranks are symptoms of deeper problems in the military, according to experts.

One in 16 women and 1 in 143 men are estimated to face sexual assault within the Department of Defense, and 1 in 6 women and 1 in 29 men will face harassment, according to a 2021 report by the RAND Corp., a nonprofit think tank based in California.

And most assaults go unreported, the report found. The military and National Guard Bureau processed and investigated more than 1,600 cases of sexual harassment in 2019, but a survey of active-duty service members the previous year found 119,000 soldiers reported experiencing sexual harassment over the past 12 months.

“Social and professional retaliation against victims is perceived to be common,” the report notes.

Moreover, a higher level of harassment increases a soldier’s risk of being sexually assaulted, according to the report.

The conditions are driving women out of the military. While it’s unclear how many women in the Maine guard leave as a result of assault or harassment, they are part of a larger, national trend.

A separate RAND study found that being sexually assaulted doubled the odds that a soldier would separate from the Armed Forces within 28 months after the assault.

The report’s authors sifted through years of RAND research to form recommendations for dealing with the issue by “holding perpetrators and leaders accountable and by equipping service members and leaders with the tools to prevent problem behaviors.”

For the Maine guard to begin to tackle the problems of sexual assault and harassment among its ranks, leaders “need to address some of those deeper issues to prime the culture to move forward toward change,” said Laura Palumbo, spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Pennsylvania.

“There needs to be a sense of buy-in and commitment from high-level leadership,” she said.

Psychological toll

The psychological impacts of assault, harassment and retaliation can be devastating.

One Maine soldier who worked as a refueler in Bangor and won accolades for her performance began failing her college classes after she was sexually assaulted. She lost some of the tuition assistance she received through the military, and had to take out $80,000 in unanticipated student loans, she said.

She gained weight and failed the physical fitness tests that are routinely required of guard members, and then flunked out of officer school.

“I told commanders that I couldn’t take the tests beforehand because I wasn’t in a right mind because I’d been assaulted,” she said. “I may not have [failed] if I was supported appropriately.”

In more troubling disclosures, two women — including one who remains in the guard — told the BDN they contemplated suicide after another guard member assaulted them. A third said she tried to kill herself after being harassed and assaulted.

The Maine Army National Guard, however, provides little support to victims of sexual assault or harassment, to the detriment of their mental health and their military careers, female soldiers told the BDN.

Indeed, the young soldier who failed her classes and fitness tests eventually did speak up about the assault to a female member of the guard who was responsible for coordinating sexual assault support services. Nothing happened.

“I was never referred to any services,” the woman said.

Another member of the guard who accompanied her to make the report confirmed her account, saying the coordinator’s cool demeanor made her seem like a “dead end.”

Four women who spoke to the BDN said they received medical discharges from the guard because of psychological fallout from a sexual assault by another a guardsman.

A sharp response

Church’s failure to get answers from the guard eventually forced her to make a desperate move that effectively ended her career in Maine.

After the guard investigated the supervisor who harassed her, Church was never told what punishment he received, if any — a common problem reported by women who filed complaints. Church didn’t even know if he was still in the guard. She just knew that she didn’t see him when she went to work at the base in Bangor.

But she heard from other soldiers that he’d been seen at the base in Augusta. Afraid she would run into him, or that he might show up in Bangor, she made what she admits was a mistake.

She accessed his digital personnel file to see if he was still active. He was.

What happened next became a cautionary tale to other women who served after her — that penalties could be more severe for women who made mistakes than for the men who abused them.

So while guard records show the supervisor received an honorable discharge after sexually harassing her and retaliating against her, Church was told she could face state and federal criminal charges for accessing a personnel file without authorization. Officials then revoked her access to computer systems she needed to do her job, according to disciplinary documents.

She finally was ordered to retake a training course on the digital personnel system and told that she would be kept off the next year’s promotion list, which determines who is in line for a promotion if a higher job opens up.

For Church, who had been at the very top of the statewide promotion list the previous year, being taken off the list was a blow that would follow her even after she was reinstated.

The decision was overturned by her commanding officer, then-Col. Diane Dunn, now a brigadier general and the highest-ranking woman in the history of the Maine National Guard. Dunn restored Church to the promotions list and allowed to complete her training, records show.

By then, however, Church believed her career with the Maine Army National Guard was over. The two men who handed down the discipline were in charge of deciding promotions in her field.

“I was toast,” she said.

She resigned from the guard in 2014 and went to live with family in northern Florida while commuting to a job with the South Carolina Army National Guard. Now married and living in South Carolina, she works for that state’s guard full time and has been promoted twice.

She finally has the career she wanted, but she had to leave Maine to do it.

“Not everyone has the ability to pack up and get out,” Church said. “And you shouldn’t have to.”

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

___

(c) 2021 the Bangor Daily News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.