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Lawmakers propose update to Alaska's code of military justice

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 15, 2015

Anchorage Democrats Rep. Chris Tuck and Sen. Bill Wielechowski are heading to Juneau with plans to beef up Alaska's Uniform Code of Military Justice. The effort is intended to improve the culture within the Alaska National Guard, which came under heavy criticism in 2014 by federal investigators for leadership failures.

"By adding and changing the Uniform Code of Military Justice, we would be creating a criminal justice system within the guard," Wielechowski said in a press conference Thursday at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office.

Unless members of the Alaska National Guard are performing federal duties, they serve in a state capacity and are not subject to the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice, the comprehensive criminal code under which regular military personnel can be prosecuted. Alaska has a state code of military justice, but it has a weak criminal component, mainly addressing military issues like dereliction of duty and providing for mild punishments. It refers most serious matters to state prosecutors for charges under the regular state criminal code. Alaska hasn't substantively changed its military justice code since 1955, the Alaska Legislature's researchers said last year.

The proposed bill, which both lawmakers called complicated and lengthy, remains in draft form and was not provided during the press conference.

Alaska's military code came under fire when federal investigators released a scathing report detailing the mishandling of sexual assault and harassment cases, fraud and other abuses within the guard. Investigators from the National Guard Bureau's Office of Complex Investigations found that Alaska's military code of justice "is more restrictive than that of most state military justice codes in that it expressly withholds jurisdiction for any crime that can be tried by civil authorities."

The result has been that conduct that would be criminal under regular Army regulations could only be handled administratively in the Alaska National Guard in personnel hearings. That, in turn, led to situations of perceived and real favoritism, according to investigators.

Wielechowksi and Tuck are proposing a system that would criminalize conduct like mutiny, sedition, desertion, harassment, being drunk on post and fraternization -- a move they say is essential to the good order and discipline of the force and to the fair treatment of Alaska guard members. But the lawmakers do not intend the overhaul to take prosecution for crimes like rape away from civilian law enforcement.

"Right now it is a personnel action if you do something that you are not supposed to. If you (would have) had this system in place you would have completely changed the culture within the guard," Wielechowski said.

‘You will have checks and balances’

Lt. Col. Ken Blaylock, a former member of the Alaska National Guard who claims he was forced out after speaking out about sexual assault cover-ups and other abuses, supports the reform effort and attended the news conference.

"You're going to have a standard that everyone has to follow. You will have checks and balances on all members of the military; nobody will be able to pick and choose which standard of regulations they want to follow," Blaylock told reporters.

A modern, enforceable military code would allow guard leadership to take action against inappropriate conduct like extramarital affairs and other indiscretions, he said, by stripping enforcement away from leadership and creating a uniform set of rules applicable to everyone.

Had Alaska's outdated code been more robust, another former guard member, Sgt. Jennifer Pastrick, said at the news conference, her career might not have come to an end after her move to Alaska in 1993 to become a recruiter for the Alaska National Guard.

Pastrick described for reporters the culture she encountered as the state's first female recruiter. Made to feel "less than" her male counterparts, she said, she was subjected to ongoing harassment.

When her incoming office phone line was repeatedly forwarded to local strip clubs, she said, it was she -- not her tormentors -- who ended up in trouble at work for not being more productive.

With no one to turn to for help, she says, she was forced out, strong-armed into an honorable retirement and disability pay.

"Lies were told about me. I lost my career. I am here to let you know that this has been a problem for 20 years. I lost my pension and my reputation and I am here to say 'No more,'" Pastrick said, her voice breaking. "I was told that I would receive a dishonorable discharge unless I agreed to leave the military and take an honorable discharge and go to the VA and receive a disability pension rather than my full pension."

A ‘systematic problem’

"This is not a new problem," said Ric Davidge, chairman of the Alaska Veterans Foundation and another participant in the news conference. Nor is it a unique one, he said.

Davidge, who joined the Army in 1963 and served in Vietnam, called the abuses and failures exposed by the recent inquiry into the Alaska National Guard "a systematic problem within the services," a side effect of management dysfunction that can only be solved be creating an external system to deal with it.

He also noted that sexual assault continues to be a problem for both women and men in the military, and that absolutely confidential reporting practices are essential for aiding victims.

The overhaul of the Alaska code of military justice is one component in a larger package of bills aimed at improving the safety of Alaska's military, a mission described by Tuck, the House minority leader, as "one of the highest priorities for this legislative session."

In addition to supporting Gov. Bill Walker's call for a special investigator to look into what happened in the Alaska National Guard and whether crimes should be prosecuted, Tuck and Wielechowski have pre-filed legislation that clarifies the protocol for reporting sexual assaults and strengthens employment and privacy protections for victims.

"These are the first steps in restoring respect and honor in our National Guard," Tuck said.

A third measure would allow private employers to implement hiring preferences for veterans, a practice supported by the Department of Defense but which, without a specific allowance in state law, is in violation of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Democrat-proposed bills usually have had trouble getting traction in the Legislature, which is dominated by Republican leaders in both houses. But the Senate's Judiciary Committee chairwoman, Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, has said she wanted to conduct hearings into the National Guard scandal, and the bills would give her that opportunity.

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