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Army investigation: No sexual assault cover-ups in Alaska National Guard

Jill Burke

A military investigation has cleared higher-ups within the Alaska National Guard of mishandling sexual assault cases. The Army Inspector General's report, completed last month, also found that Guard members did not feel concerned about the issue.

A brief summary of the findings was made public Wednesday in a one-page letter sent to Sen. Lisa Murkowski by the Department of Defense Inspector General, who had oversight over the investigation because senior officials within the Guard were under scrutiny. The agency finished its review early this month, and this week told Murkowski it concurred with the Army IG's findings.

The letter, signed by Acting Assistant Inspector General for Communications Larry D. Turner, concludes, "... The Adjutant General (TAG), AKNG, and other AKNG officials did not cover up any reported sexual assault incidents."

Gen. Thomas Katkus, who has led the Alaska National Guard since 2009 as the adjutant general and also serves as commissioner of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, is satisfied with the Army findings, according to Maj. Candis Olmstead, public affairs director for the Alaska National Guard.

"Gen. Katkus is glad that the investigation was handled by an outside federal agency which has no agenda but ... to determine truth. He is cautiously guarded because there will always be room for improvement. But he is looking forward to seeing what areas we can improve upon," Olmstead said.

The IG's letter comes close to a year after Murkowski asked the independent agency to look into allegations that dysfunction within the Alaska National Guard's command climate impeded the reporting and investigation of sexual assaults, including attempts by some officials to try cover up incidents. Murkowski called for the investigation after two chaplains from the Alaska National Guard came to her seeking help. The chaplains for some time have tried to get help for victims they believe weren't helped the way they should have been.

Another victim advocate, Lt. Col. Ken Blaylock, who retired in 2012, has voiced similar concerns.

Since leaving the Guard, Blaylock, a former National Guard commander and staff officer, has emerged as a tenacious whistleblower with a laundry list of complaints about the command structure. He said this week he was unconvinced by the IG report, which clears that command structure of allegations it mishandled and covered up sexual assault cases.

"It's interesting that the inspector general did not interview me, since I have documentation which disproves his conclusions. I wonder how many other victims and witnesses he did not interview," said Blaylock.

The report has not yet been made public or released to Murkowksi.

In the letter to Murkowski, the inspector general indicates the report also addresses the climate in which Guard members are operating and whether they had concerns about sexual assault or sexual harassment reporting. "Climate sensing sessions" found no such concerns, according to Turner's letter.

Blaylock has asserted that climate surveys in the past have been used to smoke out anyone who might speak against the command structure. Out of fear of retaliation, people choose not to speak up, he said. Plus, Blaylock said, before the investigative team showed up, the Alaska National Guard held mandatory briefings in which the stories of some sexual assault situations were discredited and procedures about proper handling of cases reiterated.

Olmstead said climate surveys are always anonymous and the survey-takers are not subject to retribution for their answers. Only if the participant chooses to put his or her name on it would their identity be known, she said. Surveys may help a new commander get a sense for the working climate within the unit, and different command levels may also review the surveys "to assess how members of the unit feel about the quality of their work environment," she said.

Olmstead also said that while "all call" meetings did take place prior to the IG investigation and surveys, they were not convened for the purposes of skewing the results. All call meetings, which everyone attends, are not uncommon, and during those meetings information about process and procedure is often discussed. At no time were sexual assault stories or situations discredited, she said.

Blaylock has also questioned whether the IG actually had a chance to look at all of the evidence, meet with all of the victims and follow how all of the cases were handled, or if it followed only those cases the National Guard gave it access to.

In its inquiry, the Army IG found that 11 cases of alleged sexual assault were referred to Alaska law enforcement authorities -- proper procedure since military code requires investigation and prosecution of cases involving Alaska National Guard suspects. It also found that Katkus took action against two suspects, each time after the sexual assault allegations were substantiated against Guard members. Consequences included being discharged and separated from the Guard.

"We definitely did not just pass on a select group of cases. All of the cases that have been reported have been documented. And all of that information was readily available to the inspector general's team," Olmstead said.

Everything follows policy and procedure, and everything is reported, she said.

She also pointed out that Blaylock, who has not actively been a part of the command for nearly two years, is not is a position to have firsthand information about current cases or the way things have been handled.

Through its public affairs chief, Bridget Ann Serchak, the Department of Defense Inspector General declined to comment on the scope or procedures employed during its investigation. If someone like Blaylock had continued concerns, they were welcome to call the IG's hotline and initiate a whistleblower complaint and through that process could be interviewed, she said.

A Murkowski spokesman said the senator is withholding comment until she has an opportunity to see the full report.

Reach Jill Burke at jill@alaskadispatch.com.


By JILL BURKE
jill@alaskadispatch.com