The general on loan to Alaska to spearhead complex reforms in the Alaska National Guard said he and his team will stay on the job as long as it takes.
"It's going to take time to get right. But it has to get right," Brig. Gen. John Mott, assistant adjutant general for the Air National Guard in Connecticut, said after his first week acclimating to Alaska and the task ahead. "We are not here to investigate. We are here to implement the recommendations."
When it released its investigative findings in September, the National Guard Bureau identified several areas that need improvement: management of sexual assault matters, the equal employment opportunity program, coordination with law enforcement and morale and the overall climate. Mott and his team are also examining military justice. A separate inquiry into fraud will be conducted through an investigation unrelated to and separate from Mott's oversight.
Assisting Mott is Brig. Gen. Leon "Mike" Bridges, acting adjutant general for the guard and acting commissioner for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Bridges replaces Brig. Gen. Thomas Katkus, whom Gov. Sean Parnell asked to leave when the severity of problems in the guard and its command were revealed.
Mott brings the organizational know-how and drive, an outside framework to help guide the reforms. Bridges' job, as commander of the Alaska troops, is to make sure the corrective actions that flow from the recommendations are implemented.
Mott's team includes a military lawyer, equal employment specialist, and a sexual assault advocate, all of whom are from other guard units outside Alaska. On Thursday, Mott and Bridges sat in a conference room at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and spoke about what's ahead.
One of the most difficult tasks is also the most unwieldy. Rebuilding trust, banishing fear and ensuring that all guard members feel safe and supported is as personal a mission as it is organizational. Both men have said there is no room in the guard for bullying and retaliation.
"Anything that violates human dignity, human respect in the workplace, and being a part of a holistic team of professionals who have taken an oath of service to others around us ... if they are causing a casualty in the ranks around me, they're the same as anybody else who has no business being on our team," Bridges said.
Guard members have expressed fear about speaking with Alaska Dispatch News reporters, unwilling to come forward out of concerns doing so will affect their livelihood in the guard. Bridges said that while there are regulations in place that prevent guard members from speaking on behalf of the organization as a whole, members are still free to share their personal experiences on their own time. If it gets back to leadership that guard members have been wrongfully silenced, Mott and Bridges said it will be dealt with swiftly and firmly.
Bridges also talked about what he calls an "evolved open-door policy," whereby guard members can seek relief with whomever they are most comfortable and that they do not have to go through their immediate chain of command. "They can absolutely go straight to the senior person in the organization without fear of repercussion, reprisal or anything else, and they will be heard. Or they can go to the inspector general. Or they can go to the chaplain. Or they can go to a trusted individual outside the organization," Bridges said.
Guard chaplains did just that last year and in prior years, when they brought their concerns first to the governor, and later, in fall 2013, to the media.
Bridges acknowledged that there had been discussions about whether the chaplains had done anything improper, but said in the end nothing came of it. He would not say whether the chaplains had been counseled or come under investigation. Personnel and privacy regulations prevent him from talking about those sorts of things, including whether someone was up for promotion, he said. But, none of the chaplains are under or at risk of penalty related to speaking up, and they continue to have a vital role in the reform effort, Bridges said.
"To me, what they did was what they felt was the most honorable and right thing to do. And that's what I want all of my personnel to do. If they believe something needs to be addressed and they run out of options to have it addressed, their decision on how they do that is truly up to them. But as long as I have anything to do with it there will never be reprisal or repercussion to that," Bridges said.
Speaking beyond the chaplains to the topic of whistleblowers in general, Bridges was careful to point out that failing to get promoted is not itself an act of retaliation or reprisal. People may not get the positions or ranks they desire for legitimate reasons, which he said is not the same as failing to move up because someone is wrongfully holding them back.
To help change morale and perceptions throughout the guard, Mott and Bridges have formed what they call "implementation planning teams" comprised of a diversity of guard members.
"This will not be a top-down-driven situation," Mott said. Airmen and soldiers, officers and enlisted, junior and senior members are all welcome and wanted in the process, he said. Tough conversations are taking place, and personnel from all levels need to be involved, he said.
Brand new airmen and privates, majors, lieutenant colonels, captains, sergeant majors will all have equal weight in the process, Bridges said.
"Actions speak louder than words. That's what's going to end up fixing this," Mott said.
How long will it take? "Until it's to the point where it's in the DNA of every soldier and airman out there and it's in the culture and nobody questions and everybody understands exactly what the right thing is to do and does it," Mott said.