Major General Hugo Salazar, adjutant general for the Arizona National Guard (right) answers questions at a press conference with Gov. Jan Brewer. (Mark Henle / The Arizona Republic)
Gov. Jan Brewer's decision to launch an independent evaluation of the Arizona National Guard represents a first step in reform efforts advocated by insiders and experts on military conduct.
The governor's call for a review of the Guard comes in response to an Arizona Republic report detailing allegations of sexual abuse, recruiting improprieties, forgery, whistle-blower retaliation and other misconduct in a Guard with about 9,000 personnel, including 2,300 full-time soldiers and airmen.
"The governor's staff needs to look into it and perhaps make some tough decisions about leadership," said retired Maj. Gen. Glen W. "Bill" Van Dyke, a past adjutant general of the Guard. "It's crisis management."
That assessment was echoed by other officers and retired military members reacting to the Republic report and to a recent leadership battle among its top commanders.
Retired Col. Karen Bence, who served as mission-support commander for the Guard's 162nd Fighter Wing, said the state military organization suffers from "a severe lack of checks and balances all the way from state headquarters to the Governor's Office."
"If I was governor, I would clean house," Bence added. "Then, I would go after my liaison and say, ‘Why didn't I know about this?' "
Bence and Van Dyke said the Guard appears to need an overhaul. Lt. Col. Rob White, who oversees future Guard operations, agreed, saying, "Clean it out at the top."
Brewer serves as commander in chief of the Arizona National Guard.
Details of her organizational review have not been released, but Matthew Benson, a spokesman for the governor, said a top National Guard officer from another state will likely be brought in to conduct a "full, fair and independent review."
Benson added that Brewer still has confidence in Maj. Gen. Hugo Salazar, the state's top military officer, who disputes assertions that the Guard suffers from a flawed culture or disproportionate unethical conduct.
In an interview and an opinion piece published by The Republic on Oct. 8, Salazar described the Arizona National Guard as "one of the nation's best." He acknowledged past problems with the recruiting unit. But he insisted that rogue officers were rooted out, operations were reorganized and a new, agencywide ethics program was created.
"We do not have a corrupt command climate," Salazar said. "We address misconduct. ... It is very unfortunate that the organization is going to be dealt with in that kind of negative perception when in no way is that what the organization is about."
White and numerous colleagues listed a gamut of behavioral problems in recent years — fraud, sexual harassment, embezzlement, fraternization and retaliation against whistle-blowers — as evidence to the contrary. Numerous officers said wrongdoing spreads because of lax discipline in an agency that sometimes functions as "a good-old-boy network."
Retired Maj. Glenn MacDonald said the Arizona National Guard produces a steady flow of scandals for his Internet site, http://militarycorruption.com">militarycorruption.com.
"The nature of National Guards lends itself to cronyism, favoritism and fraud," MacDonald added. "I've seen some of the most incompetent people raised to high ranks simply because they were friends with a governor."
A command tussle
A fight between two top commanders pushed Arizona's leadership controversy into the public spotlight last month.
Brig. Gen. Michael Colangelo, who headed the Air National Guard, was fired by Salazar after the Air Force inspector general concluded that Colangelo abused his authority by firing subordinates for misconduct.
Colangelo said he was dismissed for trying to uphold military standards. He said he sought help from Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and asked Brewer to intervene, but she declined.
"I spent four years in that job trying to reverse a bad culture," Colangelo said. "I was a hired gun brought in to fix problems with the unit. And I paid for it."
Retired Col. Felicia French, who left the Arizona National Guard in 2010 after 32 years of military service, said she believes the organization is laced with corruption and cronyism.
"Without a doubt," French said. "It's different in the regular Army. You're not with the same people all the time. And they (federal military) are harsher. ... The active Army's not nearly this bad."
Col. Louis Jordan Jr., deputy director of the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, said military organizations are a microcosm of society, and when the climate of any unit becomes fouled, the protocol is simple: Allegations get investigated; leaders take remedial action.
Jordan, who served in the Arizona Guard from 2001 to ‘08, said he is familiar with some of the wrongdoing documented by The Arizona Republic. "It takes human beings to make command decisions," he said. "In this case, that's the adjutant general or governor."
A different workplace
In a 2003 paper for the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College, Steven M. Jones said healthy organizations breed high ethical expectations and accountability. On the other hand, he wrote, "When the professed principles of leaders do not align with their actual practices, trust and confidence are degraded and overall effectiveness is compromised."
Officers in the regular Army are routinely transferred to new commands worldwide, working with unfamiliar bosses and colleagues. State Guard outfits, by contrast, operate with just a few thousand full-time soldiers and airmen working side by side with little turnover.
Without skills of high value in the civilian market, said Van Dyke, non-commissioned officers cling to comparatively "juicy jobs" in the Guard, especially in a sour economy, creating a network of cronyism.
White said full-time assignment to the Active Guard Reserve is sometimes referred to as "the job-for-life program" because employees so seldom leave. In the state's Air Guard, for example, more than half of full-time officers have been in place at least two decades.
The result is an environment where members build longtime friendships, form rivalries and compete for promotions. They also work long hours — men and women together — sometimes on training exercises, where human nature leads to fraternization and affairs.
In that atmosphere, Van Dyke said, leadership is tested when an officer does wrong.
The supervisor responsible for meting out discipline may be a longtime friend of the person needing discipline. The accused might have damaging information about the boss, or connections higher in the chain of command. This sometimes results in a superficial probe and a quiet reprimand that gets torn up months later, or verbal counseling that amounts to a wrist-slap.
"When people work together for so many years, they build up baggage," Van Dyke noted. "It can become a problem."
High-level officers in Arizona's Guard said disciplinary failures are compounded by another concern: Blame for misconduct flows uphill, so a commander who uncovers deep-rooted problems may fear being accused of dereliction.
Moreover, National Guard records reviewed by The Republic indicate that those charged in recent years with misconduct sometimes file countercomplaints against their accusers.
Even when investigations are launched, the Guard's insular nature becomes problematic.
With just 2,376 full-time military personnel — about the enrollment of an urban high school — the subset of those qualified to investigate wrongdoing is tiny. Officers know one another or share friends and foes, so investigations may be biased or carry an appearance of unfairness.
Van Dyke said the Guard benefits from a corps of experienced officers who have worked together for years, but it also pays a price. When paychecks and post-retirement pensions are based on rank, keeping a scandal under wraps may benefit friends and avoid taint.
"That's an inherent problem with the National Guard," he said. "Stability is an asset, but it's also a liability. It is very difficult."
Dealing with trouble
The National Guard Bureau, which oversees state military organizations nationwide, declined interview requests and did not respond to questions submitted by e-mail. Instead, a spokeswoman sent this comment:
"The National Guard has been serving this country for more than 375 years and we take that responsibility seriously. Our service members are a representation of society and as such, their successes and failures are a reflection on us all. ... When poor choices are made or problems are brought to our attention, we are just as eager to investigate and take appropriate action to hold members accountable and prevent future infractions."
Experts and insiders said Brewer's planned review may result in efforts to reform the organization, but Guard culture is so resistant to change that even a command shuffle might not succeed.
Van Dyke and others spoke of an unwritten military code that says misconduct — even felonies — should be dealt with inside the Guard. Records reviewed by The Republic indicate that some offenses go unreported and that serious wrongdoing is not made public.
White added that fraternization by high-level officers may be quietly resolved with a transfer or retirement. "They just sweep it under the rug," White added. "They claim they're protecting the organization, but they're not. They're protecting themselves."
Salazar defended his Arizona command, saying soldiers and airmen are held accountable. But he said the Guard works under military regulations that give suspected wrongdoers more protections than civilian workers. In all but the most serious cases, for example, discipline is issued to rehabilitate a perpetrator, not as punishment or to set a public example. As a result, even written reprimands are often erased from permanent records within months.
The Arizona National Guard is not alone in grappling with these problems. The California National Guard has been rocked by fraud scandals involving recruiters. Other state organizations have struggled with sexual harassment and assaults.
Only a court-martial or Article 15 proceeding can result in punishment. And legal requirements are so complex, Van Dyke said, "There is a certain avoidance in getting into one of those fur balls." In fact, the Arizona National Guard has never had a successful court-martial, and Article 15 proceedings are rare.
Van Dyke said the overall system may send an unfortunate message: In the National Guard, you can get away with wrongdoing.