New Policies Target Sexual Misconduct in the Vermont National Guard | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » News

New Policies Target Sexual Misconduct in the Vermont National Guard

By

Rep. Dylan Giambatista (D-Essex Junction) with current Adj. Gen. Greg Knight in January 2019 - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Rep. Dylan Giambatista (D-Essex Junction) with current Adj. Gen. Greg Knight in January 2019

The Vermont National Guard has long accommodated a notorious culture of sexual misconduct. But this year, under new leadership, it has commenced an outside audit of that culture and adopted a comprehensive slate of measures meant to protect its members from harassment and assault.

These protocols are designed to make hiring and promotions more equitable and misconduct investigations more just. Fresh protections against gender discrimination are on the books, as are new reporting mandates for sexually offensive incidents. Witnesses to misconduct can now be held accountable if they do nothing. And, in the coming weeks, the Guard will bring aboard a military police official with investigatory powers, known as a provost marshal, who can get involved when a crime is suspected to have occurred.

This flurry of initiatives is unprecedented in the history of the Vermont National Guard. Today, members of the Green Mountain Boys — that's the Guard's time-honored nickname, though women have served for decades — enjoy, on paper, more protection than their counterparts in many other states.

Yet it's too early to tell whether these reforms will result in meaningful, real-world improvements inside the fence. After all, policies and procedures have in the past been easily ignored or exploited to protect favored sons. Furthermore, the Guard's previous leader, adjutant general Steven Cray, pledged similar reforms early in his tenure only to step away from his position last year, accused of mishandling misconduct.

"There are a tremendous number of open questions within the Guard," said Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover), a military mom and founding leader of the new Vermont National Guard Legislative Caucus. "But I have found [Adj. Gen.] Greg Knight to be incredibly responsive. I have pressed him on many issues, and every time he's had a plan — and a plan to be accountable for his plan."

Sibilia formally nominated Knight to lead the Guard in February 2019, after he made explicit promises to improve conditions for women. Knight has a working-class background, having enlisted first as a soldier and made his way up into the officer class. He's also known as an affable man and a bona fide people person, which made him a strong fit in his previous Guard assignments: deputy chief of staff for personnel and human resources officer.

Knight is a white man and a former Burlington police officer who acknowledges his own blind spots. "I'm well aware of my perspective in this world," he told Seven Days. "I know that I can't know everything, nor can I fix everything, alone."

Some long-ignored voices inside the Guard are now helping Knight build his vision for the future. He and his team have consulted with local experts on race and gender issues, including the Interracial Processing Project, a consulting firm that brings diverse perspectives to white-led organizations, and HOPE Works, which supports survivors of sexual assault. Inspired by a program inside the latter organization, the Guard formed an advisory council of current and former members who've experienced sexual assault in the ranks.

Gov. Phil Scott, the Guard's de facto commander in chief, believes that Knight genuinely "wants to right the ship." Scott has long backed the Guard, even in the wake of a series of stories by this reporter published in VTDigger.org in late 2018 that detailed significant sexual misconduct and a culture of impunity.

After the dust from that scandal settled and Knight took over, Scott quietly pushed the new adjutant general to review and reform key policies and procedures. The governor also began meeting more frequently with Guard officials and provided his cellphone number to Knight.

"When there's an issue, Knight reaches out in real time," Scott told Seven Days. "That way I'm not caught flat-footed."

The first public whiff that something was wrong inside the Vermont National Guard emerged in January 2013. That's when a letter from an anonymous female Guard member circulated throughout the Statehouse alleging that retired brigadier general Jonathan Farnham, then a candidate for adjutant general — a position the legislature fills by election — had failed to address her alleged 2007 sexual assault by a senior male officer.

After Seven Days revealed the letter's existence, Farnham contended that the allegation was false but dropped out of the race, citing it as a "distraction" he did not want to deal with. Regardless, lawmakers mandated annual public disclosure of sexual misconduct cases in the Guard.

Over the next five years, more than 30 reports of alleged sexual assault were logged. Still, many of the lawmakers who had approved their disclosure paid them little attention. "The legislature didn't always read the annual reports or take them too seriously," Scott recently reflected. "I can say that's true; I'm a former state senator."

Sibilia hopes her new caucus will increase awareness of how the Guard operates. "We want to expand the opportunities for legislators to connect with the Guard, hear what is happening and hold Knight accountable," she said.

During Cray's tenure, he repeatedly pledged to state lawmakers that the Guard was making significant strides in combating sexual harassment and assault, as well as destigmatizing those who come forward to complain. But the series of VTDigger stories documented numerous alleged failures made on his watch, including the decision to let a Vermont Army National Guard chaplain who allegedly pressured a subordinate into a sexual relationship quietly retire with full benefits and the rank of colonel. Shortly thereafter, Cray announced his retirement but defended his tenure.

Knight is blunter than Cray, willing to temper his statements heralding progress with the bleaker overall picture. For instance, while Knight is promoting more women into leadership roles, including a female fighter pilot who will soon fly the F-35, he remains concerned that just 15 percent of the 3,250-member force today is female. As a result, men dominate the senior officer ranks.

Knight also admitted to Seven Days that sexual assault numbers haven't meaningfully budged on his watch, with six cases of abusive sexual contact reported so far this year. Knight said some of the allegations date back to previous years, a potentially positive indication of newfound trust in the Guard's handling of reports. But in an internal, organization-wide memo obtained by Seven Days, he expressed deep frustration that case numbers have deviated little in recent years.

"Why does it keep happening?" he wrote. "It is incredibly damaging to victims, caustic to our organization and degrades readiness. It must stop."

Doris Sumner, who retired in 2019 after a long Guard career that included 13 years as the organization's equal employment and diversity manager, believes the misconduct will keep occurring unless systemic changes are made that go well beyond what Knight has put in place. Sumner oversaw many discrimination and retaliation cases in her Guard work. She also served as an informal den mother to mistreated members.

In her mind, any policy, no matter how aspirational, can be exploited or ignored without accompanying independent oversight.

That's why, earlier this year, Sumner lobbied hard for the Vermont legislature to pass H.401, a bill that would have established a chief diversity officer who would collect misconduct cases and be accountable not to the Guard but to the governor. Nearly two dozen current and former Guard members supported the legislation, including Erynn Hazlett Whitney, who recently left the Guard and is now running a long-shot gubernatorial campaign as an independent.

"The issues in the Vermont National Guard are beyond complex and require experienced professionals, in and out of the system, in order to continue the organization's focus on defense, strength and mission readiness," she said.

When Sumner spoke earlier this year to the Women's Legislative Caucus about H.401, she read a note from a female Guard member who contended that women are rarely in the room for big decisions.

"The only way to correct the Vermont Guard is to increase the number of females to 30 percent of the overall force," this member wrote. "We need to create an environment where [women] can't be the prey, which only occurs where there are enough to change the culture. The females they promote to the most senior positions are those that won't rock the boat."

H.401 died in committee after Knight and numerous lawmakers argued that independent oversight was unnecessary and redundant. Knight instead backed a proposal to create the post of provost marshal, who, among other things, will coordinate between the Guard and civilian law enforcement to ensure that potential crimes by Guard members are properly investigated. Knight expects this position to be filled by the end of October.

Guard officials declined to comment directly on outstanding problem areas. Instead they offered partial 2020 survey data showing general satisfaction with how the organization handles everything from sexual harassment to retaliation. Yet less than 20 percent of the force participated in this volunteer survey, and the results may be skewed by the number of male respondents. The survey was anonymous, and the Guard can't say how many respondents were women, even though certain responses were broken down by gender.

The data show that red flags remain. While 90 percent of female respondents in the Vermont Air National Guard, for instance, reported feeling "appropriately engaged in unit operations and effectiveness," just 67 percent of all Guard respondents said they knew how to properly report misconduct.

On the Army side, survey data indicate, discrimination remains an urgent issue. And while Knight pledged more than a year ago to punish Guard members who witnessed bad behavior and failed to report it, a Guard spokesperson said no one has yet been reprimanded for inaction.

Perhaps the most unvarnished report into the Guard's inner workings will come from the audit, the first in its history. This work has been complicated by the pandemic. While a Guard official said he could not provide a rough date for the report's conclusion, Scott and Knight both pledged to release as much of it to the public as possible.

A brigadier general from the Idaho National Guard is conducting the investigation, which includes analysis of internal data and interviews with Guard members. Like many other state Guard organizations, Idaho's hasn't been immune from allegations of misconduct. Just last year, an Idaho recruiter was charged with sexually abusing a teenage girl. The lead agency for which the Idaho general is conducting the audit — the Office of Complex Investigations, which runs administrative reviews of sexual assault allegations in the Guard — has turned up serious misconduct in other states, including Nevada, Wisconsin and Alaska.

"If this audit uncovers some things that need improvement, I'm willing to have that conversation," Scott said.

"I want more information, good and bad, so I know areas to sustain and where to improve," Knight remarked.

Sumner, for her part, had little hope that the audit would spur necessary changes. "We keep giving new adjutant generals a chance to make things right, but then it doesn't happen," she said. "Meanwhile, people are still getting sexually assaulted, and that damage lasts forever."

Correction, October 21, 2020: Dylan Giambatista is, as of this date, a member of the Vermont House. A photo caption previously contained an error.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Battling Harassment | New policies target sexual misconduct in the Vermont National Guard. Will they work?"