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Defense commander resigns after complaints

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- Brig. Gen. Thomas Westall has stepped down as commander of the Alaska State Defense Force after an official investigation into complaints about his conduct.

And, in a major decision proving unpopular with at least some of the force's roughly 280 members, the state is taking away the brigade's guns.

Westall, a Wasilla resident and Wasilla's former airport manager, had led the Defense Force since 1996.

The force -- or 49th Military Police Brigade as it's been called since 2004 -- operates under the auspices of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and is a volunteer, armed militia that meets once a month and responds to emergencies around the state, often natural disasters. Created to support military and civil agencies, members took on additional homeland security duties after Sept. 11, 2001.

Westall said his departure was motivated by the state's decision to remove the brigade's military policing powers -- a decision triggered in part by the investigation.

Westall, 71, submitted a request to retire after serving 25 years with the force, mostly as a peace officer or a military police officer.

Given a national trend toward civil affairs for defense forces around the country, Westall said he figured it was time for him to go.

"It's just an opportunity for me to retire. Can't I do that gracefully?" he said, laughing.

Lt. Gen. Craig Campbell, the state's military and veterans affairs commissioner, however, said Westall's resignation came as a surprise.

Campbell said he and Westfall met Oct. 7 to talk about a report on the investigation, and talked about meeting again at the end of this month. Westall sent in his request to retire the next day.

"I was surprised," Campbell said. "I really was expecting he'd spend a couple weeks thinking about it and come back and give me some guidance."

Deputy brigade commander Col. Joe Williams is serving as Westall's temporary replacement.

BRIGADE NO LONGER ARMED

Campbell initiated the investigation after a former brigade member discharged by Westall filed a complaint with the governor's office last year.

This summer, state military officials received the results: a 12-page report by an investigator with the Washington National Guard. The report doesn't specifically take Westall to task but does question brigade practices during his time at the top.

The report critiqued the brigade's lack of specific policies, especially regarding termination of soldiers, said Campbell, adjutant general for the Alaska National Guard.

It also found that administering a part-time civilian force brings a high liability risk to the state, he said.

"The report does not say Westall was a bad commander," Campbell said. "The report says the state defense force, it's a voluntary organization, it's part time, it's dedicated volunteers serving their state, but they don't have the intensity of training, the skill sets the National Guard has."

As a result, Campbell recommended to Gov. Sarah Palin that brigade members should no longer be armed.

In a still-evolving mission shift, most force members will instead serve civil roles in support of the Alaska National Guard, Campbell said. The Guard is taking on MP duties under a new national mission, another major factor in the decision to disarm the brigade.

Force members will likely provide support in engineering or security areas, but "not necessarily armed security" except for maybe a platoon in Valdez, Campbell said.

DISCHARGED AFTER COMPLAINT

The investigation into Westall's conduct was triggered by an April 2007 complaint filed with Gov. Sarah Palin by former defense force member Larry Wood, a soil remediation contractor who lives on Lazy Mountain.

Wood's complaint describes Westall's "desire to control" and the force's out-of-date manuals. His concerns included the commander's exaggeration of troop numbers, removal of soldiers without due process and failure to support training.

Westall discharged Wood from the brigade in November 2007. Wood said he doesn't know why.

Westall said he didn't want to discuss the particulars.

Campbell said the state will convene a board to review Wood's termination, as well as other brigade members released in the last few years.

The investigator, among other things, concluded that the lack of well-defined force policies "may have resulted in (Wood) being separated incorrectly or maybe without cause" from the force, Campbell said.

Wood said he felt vindicated as far as Westall's leaving, but criticized the state's "extreme reaction" to the investigator's report.

The loss of policing powers offends some brigade members, many former military who want to continue to serve. They are not paid for training or equipment, investments that can run to $4,000 a person, several members said.

Past assignments have included manning a security checkpoint on the Dalton Highway, traffic control after a Valdez-area landslide, and safeguarding flooded homes in Houston against looters.

Brigade member Mike Coons, a Palmer resident who works in security, was critical of Wood for starting an investigation that led to the loss of the brigade's armed capacity.

Without the 49th, who will handle security during natural disasters or potential attacks when the Guard is called out of state and local enforcement agencies are stretched thin? he asked.

Tom Westall was an "honorable man" who did an outstanding job maintaining morale and training even as state agencies provided poor direction, Coons said.

"I can't say enough good about him. I hated to see him ask for retirement. I can't say I blame him."

Find Zaz Hollander online at adn.com/contact/zhollander or call 352-6711.


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com