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Ex-general says Alaska governor should have let leadership clean up National Guard

  • Author: Richard Mauer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 15, 2014

The first woman general to serve in the Alaska National Guard says Gov. Sean Parnell should have allowed the guard's leaders to continue their cleanup of the organization instead of firing them.

To Deborah McManus, 58, forced into retirement two years ago, the current scandal in the guard was manufactured by "disgruntled" current and former officers who want to return the organization to the days it was like a club, not a professional military force.

In a recent interview in Anchorage, McManus, once the head of the Alaska Air National Guard, conceded that both the Air and Army branches of the guard had serious problems in the past, as identified in a National Guard Bureau report released in September.

But, she said, those problems were being addressed by the guard's top brass, including Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, before he was fired by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell in September, and herself, when she headed the Air Guard as a brigadier general until 2011.

McManus is sharply critical of Parnell, not for ignoring problems as whistleblowers have charged, but for getting in the way of Katkus' housecleaning. In firing Katkus and three top guard officers prior to the election, Parnell was trying to save his own career, she said, not the Alaska National Guard. It was, she said, "political expediency. And lack of courage, lack of leadership, lack of convictions."

Parnell's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said the governor is committed to following the guidelines for reform recommended by the National Guard Bureau.

"We are doing this in conjunction with a team of experts sent by the National Guard Bureau and led by (Connecticut Guard) Gen. Jon Mott, who are working side by side with Alaska guard members," Leighow said.

‘Absolute insanity’

McManus is now living in Maryland with her husband, also a former Alaska National Guardsman, but she returned to Alaska to vote in the Nov. 4 election and give support to the two brigadier generals who lost their guard jobs in October -- Donald "Scott" Wenke and Catherine Jorgensen. Neither has completed the retirement process and both declined requests for interviews.

The crisis began to unfold in newspaper reports in fall 2013 with allegations that state military officials and Parnell failed to address persistent reports of sexual assault, sexual misconduct and fraud in the Alaska National Guard. At the time, Katkus acknowledged receiving 29 reports of sexual assault from guard victims from 2009 through October 2013, with 11 of the alleged perpetrators -- about 38 percent -- believed to be guard members.

More recent numbers appear to show the guard-on-guard assault problem worsening over time. An Army Inspector General report dated April 8, 2014, lists 11 sexual assaults against guard members between February 2012 and April 2014. Seven of those -- 64 percent -- were alleged to have been committed by fellow soldiers.

That April 8 Inspector General report was released by the Army to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office in July, but nearly every page was redacted, including references to the sexual assault numbers. A much less edited version surfaced Nov. 5 -- the day after the election -- among documents released by the Parnell administration in response to a public records lawsuit by Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Public Media.

In the face of unrelenting complaints, including from a state legislator, Parnell in February asked the Pentagon for help. The National Guard Bureau delivered its report Sept. 4. It declared the evidence showed the guard's leadership had failed its soldiers, not only in the matter of sexual assaults, but in allowing a culture in which people feared retaliation for speaking out. It also cited evidence of fraud and misuse of government property.

Parnell fired Katkus the day the report was released.

"That's absolute insanity because Katkus was part of the solution," McManus said. "He was making changes to that culture."

‘Good old boys’

From McManus' perspective, the worst problems cited in the report occurred more than two years ago. Some problems dated back to the 2000s. The sexual misconduct and booze-bingeing allegations in the Army guard's Recruiting and Retention Battalion were terrible, she said, but a new commander began cleaning up the unit in 2012. Jorgensen, the general relieved by Parnell, was taking action against members of that unit, she said.

McManus is not without her critics. One, also a retired general in the guard, Gene Ramsay, accused her in a 2010 letter to Parnell of micromanaging the Air Guard and abusing her power. McManus, in turn, described Ramsay as one of the "good old boys."

McManus started her career as a civilian in the Pentagon with a background in business administration, not military flying. She joined the National Guard in Washington, D.C., transferred to Maryland, then came to Alaska in 1990. She volunteered for a six-month deployment to Iraq in 2005. And in 2007, she was promoted to brigadier general and assumed command of the Alaska Air National Guard.

With her roots in the Pentagon bureaucracy and the East Coast guard, some Alaskans saw her as the problem. At the same time, the guard's mission was changing across the country.

In Alaska, the Army guard took over Fort Greely, where the national missile defense system was based, and the Air Guard took over the early warning system at Clear Air Force Station. The guard moved from its comfortable campus at Kulis Air National Guard Base on the edge of the Anchorage airport to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Its prop-driven C-130s began to yield to the much larger C-17 jet transports that it shared with the regular Air Force.

"We went from a flying club, local kind of guard, to having to be professional so we could deploy and go to war. That was another transition that the good old boy club had difficulty with," McManus said. "Everybody liked Kulis because nobody could watch us. It was very comfortable and we were like a little family. It was very nice, but we'd outgrown it because, in Alaska, there's a lot of active-duty missions."

‘Failed leadership culture’

A disaster occurred on her watch July 28, 2010, when a C-17 piloted by a guardsman crashed shortly after take-off from JBER. All four crew members died -- three from the guard and one from the regular Air Force. The $186 million plane burned for a day and a half in woods near the Alaska Railroad tracks.

The crew was practicing a pattern for the Arctic Thunder Air Show four days away. They planned to make a sharp U-turn after takeoff and roar back over the runway -- and the crowd -- at low altitude.

The pilot's plan would have been safe had he followed procedures and showed off the C-17's capabilities, an Air Force investigation board later found. Instead, the plan pushed the plane to maximum performance -- and perhaps beyond. The pilot banked too steeply, climbed too aggressively, flew too low and responded incorrectly to a stall alarm. The board found that "misplaced motivation, procedural guidance and program oversight substantially contributed to the mishap."

The crash was a signal event for both McManus and the critics. The opponents had been saying a disaster was inevitable, given the pace of operations and lean staffing. She said the crash was further evidence of a lack of professionalism.

"July 28, 2010, didn't have to happen. It was the culmination of a failed leadership culture, a culture in which standards were not enforced, and there were no disciplinary actions," she said.

Instead, in 2011, Katkus removed her from her post, she believes at the behest of Parnell.

"We were not popular. Military leadership is not a popularity contest -- we have to meet standards. That's why we went out of favor with the people we were holding accountable," she said.

McManus was pushed aside to head up the joint Air and Army Guard headquarters staff, where she ran the guard's homeland security and disaster relief operations. The next year, Katkus advised her to plan her retirement.

"I had the distinct impression the governor was twisting his arm, because of the folks at the wing, the old command team, were sending letters to his office, filing IG complaints, and filing a state ethics complaint," McManus said. She described her opponents as the "Alaska Brotherhood," military chaplains and churchgoing officers -- all men -- who connected with Parnell over a common Christian faith.

Leighow, Parnell's spokeswoman, said that any suggestion that Parnell is discriminating against women is false.

"Half the governor's leadership team are women," she said. "Gov. Parnell has more women serving in his cabinet than at any time in Alaska history."

Old allegations?

With the exception of the National Guard Bureau report released this past September, all of the prior investigations failed to sustain the charges against guard leadership, McManus said.

The once-redacted 2014 Inspector General report, for instance, found the allegation that Katkus failed to foster a healthy command climate "was not substantiated."

And a lengthy complaint brought by a serving guard officer in 2012 under the state Executive Branch Ethics Act against Katkus, McManus, Parnell and Parnell's chief of staff, Mike Nizich, was dismissed.

"Katkus has been under numerous investigations. I was targeted in some of those investigations," McManus said. "All allegations were unsubstantiated."

But that's not entirely true. The 2012 ethics complaint, brought by Col. Patty Wilbanks, tried a novel approach under state law, accusing Katkus, Parnell, McManus and Nizich of advancing their own personal interests and reputations over the state's interests by "abusing" their authority. Foreshadowing the findings of the Guard Bureau report two years later, she accused Katkus of retaliating against guard members who attempted to report unethical conduct. That itself was unethical and a violation of law, Wilbanks asserted.

In dismissing the complaint, the attorney general's office didn't rule on the validity of any of the allegations, only that Wilbanks' interpretation of the ethics law was incorrect. The law doesn't bar an official from taking action that enhances his or her personal reputation or career and "is not a tool to assess how well any state officer performs his job generally," the dismissal said.

But the contradictory findings from the Army Inspector General and the Guard Bureau's Office of Complex Investigations caught the attention of Sen. Murkowski. On Friday, she demanded an explanation from the Defense Department's inspector general.

"The findings of the OCI report were strikingly different than those of the Army (Inspector General) inquiry," Murkowski wrote. "It seems highly irregular that two inquiries conducted during roughly the same timeframe by professional military investigators would reach diametrically opposite conclusions." She said that some critics of the national guard were not interviewed in the inspector general investigation.

McManus said the explanation is simple. The OCI report was an "assessment," not a full-bore investigation where witnesses are put under oath. It also covered an earlier time, she said.

"There's a lot of truth in those allegations, but they're old -- and they've been dealt with," she said.

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