Alaska National Guard leader: 'Zero tolerance' for sexual assault, harassment
The Alaska National Guard kicked off its month-long campaign last weekend to put an end to sexual assault and harassment in the organization and local community. Just five years after a sexual assault scandal involving multiple guardsmen made headlines across the state, leadership says there’s still a lot of work to be done.
On Saturday, guardsmen gathered at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to watch Brig. Gen. Torrence Saxe, adjutant general and commissioner for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and others sign a proclamation to show leadership is committed to protect them, their mission partners and the local community as part of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
“This is something I don’t want you to raise your hands over, but how many folks believe that the culture has changed,” Saxe asked the room. “I think it has, but we have a long way to go on that — a long way to go.”
One common phrase that guardsmen hear is “protect the people, protect the mission.” Saxe said that means that when you take care of the people, you take care of the mission and that’s something that should be ingrained in the guard’s culture. But, he said it needs to be refined.
“Years ago, I was at a unit somewhere in this state and we were talking about sexual harassment,” Saxe said. “I noticed there was a couple people that had to get up and leave the room. They were very upset.”
Saxe said when he talked to those people, they said they didn’t trust the guard’s leadership to do something to prevent sexual abuse.
“We don’t trust command climate,” Saxe said they told him at the time. “You’re coming in here and saying that we have zero tolerance. We have heard [it] over and over. Enough. If you’re gonna have a zero tolerance, then you take zero tolerance.”
Saxe said their stories hit home for him, because there needs to be trust in command. He opened up about how his wife had been sexually harassed while she was in the military and how that influenced his decision to enforce a true zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual abuse in the guard.
News broke of sexual harassment and abuse within the Alaska National Guard in 2014. An investigation into abuse allegations by the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations was first made public by then-Gov. Sean Parnell in September of that year.
A retired Juneau judge hired to look into the complaints at the time found that there was “a lack of confidence in reporting sexual assault and harassment and serious command climate concerns” in certain guard units. The judge’s special investigator’s report released to the public in 2015 found the guard improperly documented sexual assaults, failed to refer victims to advocates and breached confidentiality from 2010 to 2014.
Some of the guardsmen at Saturday’s event said they believe the guard has improved since the scandal, including Staff Sgt. Monique Andrews, who’s given the same pledge to end sexual abuse in the organization for the past three years.
“It’s important to give the pledge because it’s an outward symbol of our commitment for our organization that we will not tolerate sexual assault or sexual harassment in our organization,” Andrews said. “Just as individuals, you know, have such pride in our flag as a symbol of our veterans, standing up and reading the proclamation is an outward symbol that says we will not tolerate it and we support you if you’ve experienced it.”
Andrews said that since the scandal broke, more guardsmen are showing up and supporting events like Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. She said more individuals are coming forward to share their stories of survival and getting connected to the resources they need for support.
"I feel proud to be a part of an organization that was able to take a step back, and look where it can improve, and then actually to take action steps to do that improvement," she said.
Saxe said he wants to breed a culture in the guard where there’s trust in command. He wants guardsmen to feel comfortable coming forward if sexual abuse happens.
“It starts with the person that you see in the mirror,” Saxe said. “Ranks change, positions change, but you have to hold that person you see in the mirror accountable and definitely when you come into a position of authority, you have to do that as well. So when you talk about zero tolerance, make that zero tolerance start with you. There is no acceptance for it, even for the person that you see in the mirror.”
Dave Leval contributed to this report.
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