Master Sgt. Jarrett Carson, a large, bald man described by his own attorney as a loud, brash, direct, in-your-face senior noncommissioned officer, is fighting to save his military career.
Carson, a 19-year guardsman, is the latest recruiter from the Alaska Army National Guard to undergo a trial-like administrative hearing to determine whether he should be kicked out of the military.
For Carson and other recruiters accused of sexual misconduct and other violations, such administrative hearings have been the only punitive process initiated thus far, and it is unclear what the outcomes have been. Alaska hasn't adopted the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which provides for criminal trials and punishment in the regular armed forces. The harshest penalty the Alaska guard can impose is to kick out an offender with an "other-than-honorable" discharge. Crimes can be referred to civilian law enforcement.
Carson's hearing comes amid months of reports about problems in the Alaska National Guard, including a wide-ranging investigation by the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau that found serious leadership failures and sexual misconduct. The bureau's Office of Complex Investigations singled out the Alaska Army Guard's Recruiting and Retention Battalion, a unit in which higher ranking soldiers were accused of heavy drinking and pursuing inappropriate relationships with recruits and co-workers.
Only two civilians attended the opening of Carson's hearing in an Alaska National Guard office on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson -- an Alaska Dispatch News reporter and her "handler," Kalei Rupp, public information officer at the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The hearing was initially opened to the public under an Army regulation, but during a break after opening statements, the head of the hearing board, Lt. Col. Fred Long of the Idaho National Guard, turned to the two civilians and asked them who they were. A few minutes later, Long told the reporter to leave the room -- a demand he could make under a regulation permitting closed hearings on "classified, inflammatory, or otherwise exceptionally sensitive" subjects.
Carson is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with another soldier in 2008 when both were married to others, and of having an inappropriate relationship in 2011 with a lower-ranked soldier.
"For years Master Sgt. Carson has presented himself and set the tone of being untouchable," Capt. Gregory Vanison said during the government's opening statement. Vanison, the attorney leading the case against Carson, told the board that Carson "carried on sexual relationships with women he attempted to put into the guard."
"We don't expect recruiters to try to have sex with applicants," he said.
While all military members are held to high standards, recruiters are held to even higher ones, Vanison said. "I believe you have enough evidence to separate Master Sgt. Carson so he doesn't wear this uniform anymore," he said, placing his hand to his chest and tugging at the fabric.
Carson denies he did anything wrong.
Carson may not necessarily have been "everybody's best friend," but he is a "great recruiter" and "great leader" who "did not commit any of these allegations," Carson's attorney, Maj. Todd George, told the four-member board that had assembled to decide his client's fate.
The board hearing the case functions similar to a jury. Two are Alaska-based soldiers and two are soldiers from out of state.
George said much of the case is based on rumor and hearsay, and many of the real people mentioned in investigative reports would not be showing up as witnesses. He said the Alaska National Guard has suffered under "a culture of rumor and gossip."
A witness who would be at the hearing would refute much of what was alleged, George said.
While the rumors may be unfounded, the dysfunction, infighting and internal politics at play within the unit are very real, George said.
Some of the soldiers accused of misconduct have said the investigations were biased and unfair and that witnesses were coerced into statements under threat of becoming investigative targets themselves.
While previous separation boards have taken place, the outcomes have not been officially disclosed, leaving it unclear how many of the allegations have withstood the evaluations that the boards are tasked with conducting.
The Alaska National Guard, through its public affairs office, has said it will not release information until "all boards are final and no appeals are pending."
In an interview a week before the hearing, Carson said he expected to be cleared, adding that he came forward about the situation in recruiting 20 months ago, reaching out to the offices of U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich. He declined to elaborate on what he told the senators, saying he wanted to wait to reveal more until during his hearing.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that accusations of heavy drinking against members of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion were made in the past. Additionally, this article originally incorrectly identified Maj. Todd George as Maj. Todd Jorge.