MADISON, Wis. — Federal military officials have agreed to review how the Wisconsin National Guard handles sexual assault in the wake of multiple alleged incidents dating back to 2002, Gov. Tony Evers and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said Wednesday.
Evers and Baldwin, both Democrats, asked the National Guard Bureau's Office of Complex Investigations in Washington, D.C., in March to review the Wisconsin Guard's sexual assault and harassment reporting procedures, investigative protocols and accountability measures. The governor and the senator issued a joint statement Wednesday morning announcing that OCI will conduct "a thorough, independent assessment" that could take several months.
"The bottom line is that our service members deserve to work in an environment that's free of sexual assault and harassment and the fear they might face retaliation for reporting," Evers said.
An OCI team will review Wisconsin Guard policies and practices, conduct on-site reviews at all major Wisconsin Guard locations, review sexual assault and harassment allegations and provide recommendations on how to prevent incidents, Evers and Baldwin said in a statement. They also asked any Wisconsin Guard members with concerns or complaints about sexual harassment and assault to email the OCI team at NationalGuardAssessment@wisconsin.gov.
"The men and women of the Wisconsin National Guard deserve an environment free of sexual harassment and assault and I believe this impartial outside review of past actions, current protocols, and future improvements is the best way to meet that objective," Baldwin said.
National Guard Bureau spokeswoman April Cunningham had no immediate comment. Wisconsin National Guard spokesman Capt. Joe Trovato said in an email to The Associated Press that the Guard welcomes the review.
"The Wisconsin National Guard takes all allegations of sexual assault, harassment or misconduct seriously, and eliminating it from our ranks has long been one of our organization's top priorities," Trovato said. "We consistently communicate across all levels of our organization that sexual misconduct has no place in our ranks."
The U.S. Air Force is already investigating allegations of sexual assault and harassment within a Wisconsin Air National Guard security unit. Baldwin requested that probe in November after a master sergeant in the unit, Jay Ellis, told her office that he knew of six incidents between 2002 and 2016 and high-ranking officers had done little to address them.
Wisconsin Guard officials told reporters during a question-and-answer session earlier this month that they received 52 reports of sexual assault between 2013 and 2017, with more than half related to military service. Guard investigators substantiated that 10 of the reports of incidents related to military service, meaning they felt there was enough evidence to continue down the path toward internal punishment.
The Guard has launched two court-martials for sexual assault since 2013. Trovato said in an email to the AP on Tuesday that one of the proceedings concluded in 2015 with a private sentenced to 30 days in jail and receiving a bad-conduct discharge for failing to obey orders, cruelty and maltreatment. The other involves a staff sergeant charged with sexual assault and indecent exposure, maltreatment, indecent conduct, disobeying a superior officer and making a false statement. That proceeding is still ongoing. He didn't have any further details from the two cases.
The remaining eight cases have been referred for "administrative action" that could include demotions, reprimands and discharges, Trovato said during the question-and-answer session.
Wisconsin Guard officials said during that session that sexual assault has no place in the Guard's ranks. They noted that victims can request confidentiality when they report incidents; in such reports the identity of everyone involved remains secret. Victims can get counseling services and the Wisconsin Guard's leader, Adj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, is notified but no investigation begins.
They noted that victims can seek expedited transfers away from perpetrators within the same unit and commanders stress to their soldiers and airmen to conduct themselves professionally.
Evers said in an interview Wednesday that despite his call for a review he still stands by Dunbar, who has served as the Guard's top commander since then-Gov. Jim Doyle appointed him to the position in 2007.
“I’m not questioning his leadership at all,” Evers said of Dunbar. “This study is not about individual personnel. It is all about making sure the climate and the procedures are in place to make National Guard members are safe and feel comfortable working.”