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Report says Alaska National Guard has improved after sexual assault scandal

An audit conducted by the Alaska Department of Administration says Alaska’s National Guard units have improved their handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment since a 2014 scandal, but some problems still remain.

The report, ordered by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and produced by the Department of Administration’s oversight unit, also confirms the findings of a 2015 investigation that examined 16 sexual assault cases between 2010 and 2014.

Dunleavy’s deputy communications director, Jeff Turner, said the governor “ordered the report at the beginning of his administration to give Alaskans assurance that the Alaska National Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program is fully implemented and continues to be followed by guard leadership.”

Prior investigations by the state and the federal National Guard concluded “that sexual abuse, assault, and harassment were significantly underreported” in Alaska’s National Guard, partially because commanders’ actions deterred reporting.

“It definitely was a ridiculous situation,” said Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks and co-chair of the Alaska House’s special committee on military and veterans affairs.

“They acted like they didn’t care about it for a while,” he said.

In the years since that report, the National Guard increased sexual assault and prevention training, set up new procedures for addressing complaints, and created a new military judicial system under laws passed by the Alaska Legislature.

Citing the results of anonymous surveys given annually to National Guard members, the report concludes that training efforts have encouraged soldiers to report problems.

Statistics indicate that more sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations have been filed after the scandal than during the years that led to it.

Adjutant General Torrence Saxe, head of the Alaska National Guard, said the report shows “good progress, and we want to keep moving forward.”

“We believe one reason we’re having more reports is that people are now more comfortable in coming forward,” he said. “We want people to be able to come forward. If numbers are going up, we do think that is more trust in leadership.”

Brig. Gen. Torrence Saxe, Adjutant General, Alaska National Guard, and Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veteran Affairs addresses delegates Friday, Oct. 18, 2019 during the Alaska Federation of Natives convention at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The new report says the National Guard conducted 23 sexual assault disciplinary proceedings between 2016 — the year that new system started — and September 2019. Fifteen of those reports were unrestricted, allowing auditors to examine the facts. The 15 reports dealt with seven National Guard members: Five suffered military punishment, one complaint was unsubstantiated, and the seventh is still under investigation.

“In all the cases that (the Oversight and Review Unit) has reviewed, the AKNG responded quickly and appropriately to allegations of misconduct,” the report concluded.

In several of the cases, civilian prosecutors pursued charges against the National Guard members even as the military justice system worked in parallel.

In one case, the US Attorney’s office declined to prosecute but the military justice system found a preponderance of the evidence favored the victim’s account of events. After the victim declined to pursue the case, the soldier’s commanding officer barred the soldier from reenlisting, effectively removing them from the Guard. The soldier was ultimately discharged for medical reasons.

The report recommends greater cooperation between civilian prosecutors and the military justice system, with legislation to allow information sharing between the two. It also says the Alaska National Guard should have a military judge, something recommended in 2015 but not yet implemented.

Saxe said he “recently assigned someone” to serve as a part-time judge.

“That’s our first one ever,” he said.

Thompson said he has not finished reviewing the report but said he believes the National Guard has made “some” improvement.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said. “I think we have a ways to go yet.”

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