National Guard sexual assault subject to congressional hearing

National Guard leaders were called before a congressional panel on Wednesday to address sexual assaults in their ranks, and US President Jackie Speier didn’t mince words.

“We are here today to pull back the curtain that allowed this insidious rot,” said Speier, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee.

“The National Guard has been notified,” she told Guard chiefs. “Sexual assault and harassment will not be tolerated. We pay your bills. We fund you. Game over.”

Speier held the hearing in response to a USA TODAY Network investigation last year that found Guard units buried sexual assault allegations, retaliated against women who came forward and hid crucial documents to the victims.

The National Guard, made up of 54 militias in every state and territory, is controlled by governors but funded primarily by the federal government. The Virginia-based National Guard Bureau oversees these state units but does not regulate them.

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Gen. Daniel Hokanson, bureau chief, and Maj. Gen. Charles Walker, who oversees the agency’s sexual assault investigation team, testified at the hearing.

Speier asked Hokanson if he had the authority to deal with sexual assaults that take place in state units.

“I understand your authority is to encourage, to cajole, to subtly hope that they will do the right thing,” she said. “Do you have a power?

Hokanson said he has the authority he needs to work with state units to ensure they get the guidance they need. Walker said the office is working with heads of state to respond to sexual assaults

Reports of sexual assaults in the Guard have increased each year for the past nine years, more than tripling, from 173 in 2009 to 634 in 2020. So far this fiscal year, it is up from the last year, Walker said.

Speier raised questions about whether states could be held liable.

“That’s $26 billion that we distribute every year to those states, and we have no control, no authority to protect those National Guard members if the state chooses not to,” he said. she declared.

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Because the National Guard is controlled by heads of state, many federal reforms, including amendments signed into law by President Biden in December to remove sexual assault prosecutions from the military chain of command, do not apply to strength. Instead, members of the Guard are governed by 54 different military justice statutes, which can vary widely.

Hokanson didn’t provide much new information about the bureau’s efforts beyond focusing on prevention with better training and an increased focus on identifying risk factors that could lead to sexual assault, such as how alcohol is used during exercise weekends or duty duties.

“We are working on ways to help states with better guidance and resources,” he said. Interviewed last fall Along with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network, bureau commanders said they were working to implement sweeping reforms to better protect thousands of people within the force. These changes include increased transparency, better data collection and analysis, routine program reviews, and a greater focus on prevention.

“Our guards and their families need to trust their chain of command. They need to trust the offices that investigate sexual assaults,” Hokanson said Wednesday. “We must earn that trust by establishing and maintaining a culture of trust in every state and territory and in DC”

The National Guard was

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Yet there is little data on the outcome of sexual assault cases in the Guard, where 90% of allegations involve members who work for their state rather than the federal government. Guard records show the force does not know how many allegations are substantiated, how often soldiers are court-martialed and punished, and how often cases are referred to civilian police.

Last year, the office revamped its Office of Complex Investigations, which conducts administrative investigations at the request of a state. This office is now an independent entity reporting to senior Guard management rather than the office’s General Counsel.

The office has since increased the number of investigators by 60%. Now, 29 staff investigate allegations of sexual assault by state units if local law enforcement refuses to take cases.

The office also said it was revamping its training program.

For years, the Guard has relied on the same sexual assault training and curriculum used by the full-time forces. But the office is creating a program that matches the Guard’s monthly training schedule and distinct culture.

Speier asked Hokanson and Walker to report on various issues, including information about repeat offenders.

“I really think we still have work to do here,” she said.

Katelyn Ferral is an investigative reporter for the Journal Sentinel. Email him at kferral@gannett.com.

Jessica C. Bell