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Mishandling of misconduct reports, retaliation a pattern across the National Guard

“It was one of those ‘this is just what we do here” type of situations,” Army Staff Sgt. Jessica MacHaffie said of the reaction from colleagues after a field-grade officer, she said, stuck his foot into her bikini bottom while her fellow members of the Florida National Guard’s headquarters staff went for a swim during a 2011 conference.

Discouraged by the lack of concern showed by her coworkers, who she said saw the assault happen, MacHaffie chose not file a report. But by 2014, she had heard of other allegations of sexual misconduct against now-retired Maj. Scott Taylor, and so filed a restricted report, which can be used as a record of an allegation but not prosecuted.

In 2017, after transferring to the Army Reserve, MacHaffie upgraded her report to unrestricted.

“If I had the ability or the power or the opportunity to bring it forward and potentially protect somebody, and I didn’t ― that person’s assault, or blood, or whatever, is my fault, also,” she said.

Months later, according to a sworn statement from MacHaffie’s sexual assault victim advocate provided to Military Times, Taylor’s uniformed defense attorney laid out a conspiracy theory.

He “explained that he and his client feel that Jessica is being coerced by officers in the Florida National Guard into filing a report of sexual assault for an incident that never occurred,” the SARC wrote. “I did not ask who he believed is coercing her or why they’d be coercing her. He also stated that she has behavioral health issues and those behavioral health issues may be why these officers are able to manipulate her.”

But concerns over sexual misconduct in the Florida National Guard continued and in 2019, its leadership came tumbling down amid investigations into both senior leader misconduct and mishandling of reports at lower levels. Army Brig. Gen. Mike Canzoneri, the assistant adjutant general, and another officer “actively concealed evidence of sexual misconduct and other violence committed against soldiers of the Florida National Guard,” according to an email from an officer in the Florida National Guard’s Judge Advocate General Corps to a Florida state legislator, first reported by the Tampa Bay Times.

As the Army’s inspector general investigated, Canzoneri resigned.

“I maintain my innocence in the allegations,” he told Military Times in a statement then. “However, the investigation is a distraction to the force, our soldiers have a mission. So in order to support our soldiers, I have chosen to step down.”

Canzoneri told Military Times that two separate investigations could not substantiate allegations against him, and he retired in 2019.

“Currently there are no open investigations into BG (Ret.) Mike A. Canzoneri,” Army spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said in an email to Military Times. “None of the previous allegations made against BG (Ret.) Mike A. Canzoneri were substantiated. We consider this matter closed. "

At the time, he had been accused of covering up sexual misconduct reports for years, in addition to his own misconduct. One of those alleged cover-ups involved Taylor.

But Florida is not the only National Guard unit experiencing these issues, and the highest levels of the organization have put out their own guidance.

Back in January, the then-chief of the National Guard Bureau sent an open letter to the heads of each state and territory’s Guard.

Over the previous year, the reserve organization had been plagued by headlines detailing accusations of misconduct, sexual and otherwise, and searing allegations that the leadership in multiple states have been covering them up and retaliating against those who sought to bring them to light.

“As senior military leaders, we share the responsibility to establish safeguards to protect our most valuable assets: our National Guard members, their families, and civilian employees,” Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel wrote. “This effort is critical to all of us and I ask that you review this topic with an open mind, assess your efforts honestly, and take action as appropriate.”

He went on to lay out some points for leaders to consider when responding to a sexual assault allegation, including whether the victim is receiving appropriate support; whether law enforcement is handling the investigation, or NGB’s Office of Complex Investigations should step in; and whether the matter will be adjudicated in a civilian setting or by uniformed prosecutors.

The letter, provided to Military Times by NGB, was meant to herald the submission of the Guard’s 2019 sexual assault reporting statistics, which are compiled and released by the Defense Department. But it was timely, nonetheless, as several state organizations came under scrutiny in 2019 for their handling ― or mishandling ― of assault and harassment complaints.

Toxic command climates and the consequences of them have gained a national spotlight this year. In the wake of the killing of Spc. Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood, whose story had overtones of sexual harassment and indifference from leadership, the Army launched an investigation of the post’s command climate and Army senior leaders vowed to root out those dynamics across the service.

Members of Guillen’s family have said she hesitated to report her sexual harassment at the hands of a fellow soldier, for reasons all too familiar to many survivors of military sexual assault or harassment ― that she would not be believed, and that her leadership would retaliate against her for rocking the boat.

In the National Guard, which has both Army and Air Force components, similar tales have bubbled up in multiple corners of the country.

Widespread problems

“The National Guard is aware of stories from the California, Wisconsin and Florida concerning sexual assault allegations and whistleblower retaliation,” spokeswoman April Cunningham told Military Times. “While we are unable to discuss details on individual sexual assault reports, we are deeply disturbed by any allegations that undermine the National Guard’s core values and violates our standards of conduct.”

However, years of allegations, investigations and evidence shared with Military Times by survivors of assaults paint a picture of an organization struggling to hold its people accountable.

There may be several reasons for this, according to retired Col. Don Christensen, who last served as the Air Force’s chief prosecutor and is now the president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for ending sexual harassment and assault in the services.

“The National Guard is a creature unto itself ― and it’s really, you know, dozens of creatures,” Christensen said, adding that each state has its own code of justice, which is largely based on the Defense Department-wide UCMJ, with slight variations.

But the dispersed, part-time nature of serving in the National Guard can result in further discrepancies from unit to unit, or state to state.

“The experience level of their [judge advocates], who are going to be advising them, is going to be all over the board,” he added, with some maybe having never tried a case at all, let alone one dealing with sexual assault.

“Same with their investigators. I think they do a lot more command-directed investigations,” he said, where on the active-duty side, many of these potentially criminal cases would be immediately kicked to Army Criminal Investigation Command or the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations.

At the top, NGB is working on its prevention program, Cunningham said, as well as its overall environment.

“We are committed to creating a culture free of sexual assault, sexist behaviors, sexual harassment, and other derisive behaviors through prevention, awareness, intervention and quick response capabilities,” Cunningham said.

But with Guard organizations in every state and territory, the on-the-ground responses to misconduct can be inconsistent at best ― and at worst — completely obscured.

“It’s really hit or miss. And then you add into it the nature of Guard units, where many people serve generationally,” Christensen said. “You could be in the same Guard unit with your grandfather. So I think it’s much more tight-knit, which I think leads more to a protective attitude about the accused [rather] than holding them accountable.”

Accuser accused

Soon after filing her unrestricted report, MacHaffie received a letter from a law firm Taylor had hired, accusing her of slandering him with her accusations. It also included a threat: “[It] is concerning that you have made these false statements when there is much that could be brought to light from your past which we are sure you would not want in the public purview.”

Taylor’s pushback only strengthened her resolve, she said.

“If you’re so innocent, then why do you have to intimidate me and threaten me to get me to back off?” she said.

A separate investigation into Taylor, launched in 2017, found that he “created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment” for a civilian FLNG employee, according to memo from Army Col. Leslie F. Caballero, FLNG’s inspector general.

As a result of those and other accusations against Taylor, 1st Army convened a board in 2019 to determine whether to strip him of his federal recognition, which would effectively end his career.

The board ruled that MacHaffie’s accusations, as well as allegations of attempting to initiate an inappropriate relationship and conduct unbecoming,could not be substantiated, according to a results Taylor provided to Military Times.

“...if I don’t prove my innocence, no one will,” Taylor told Military Times in an email. “That has been the problem from the beginning, anyone can say or write anything, ruin family’s and careers without having actual facts. Anyone can make an accusation, it doesn’t mean it happened. When the accused is denied to present their side, present their facts to exonerate themselves, that should be the issue, not unsubstantiated accusations from resentful and vindictive prior employees.”

But Florida’s adjutant general rejected those findings, Taylor said.

He retired earlier this year, as a major, FLNG spokesman Lt. Col. Caitlin Brown confirmed, and a grade-determination board ruled he last served honorably as an O-4, retiring him as a major.

Taylor maintains that he retired as a lieutenant colonel, but did not provide any documentation to support that assertion.

Government intervention

Florida is not the only state to face high-level scrutiny.

Early this year, Wisconsin’s state justice department announced a review of the Wisconsin Guard’s handling of sexual assault investigations, after a December National Guard Bureau report found that, among other missteps, commanders had been conducting their own internal investigations into complaints, rather than referring them to civilian law enforcement or military criminal investigation commands, as is federal law.

“The worst victim-blaming,” Christensen said of the report. “The investigators clearly had no understanding of trauma, counter-intuitive behavior, anything like that.”

Just before that report went public, Wisconsin’s governor asked Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, then the head of the state’s Guard, to step down.

The Wisconsin Guard is not alone in allegations of retaliation.

A Nevada Air Guardsman who reported her rape by a senior noncomissioned officer late last year told Military Times that her command has pursued multiple internal investigations in regards to her and her case, as recently as early August.

The case originally made headlines in late 2019 after the senior NCO in question was removed from his job at NVNG’s Reno base. In the intervening months, the local police department declined to press charges and NVNG is in the process of pushing him out for an inappropriate relationship, Lt. Col. Mickey Kirschenbaum, NVNG’s spokesman, confirmed to Military Times.

Military Times is not identifying the senior NCO as he has not been charged with a crime. Military Times does not identify survivors of sexual assault unless they agree to be named.

The senior airman alleged that her master sergeant groomed her for a year before beginning to rape her in June 2019. She reported the assaults in November, after he had threatened to kill her.

“Once I reported, the Guard basically just covered it up right away,” she said.

Following the report, a sexual assault response coordinator took her to the Reno Police Department to file a report, though it was too late by then to complete a rape kit.

She filed three inspector general complaints, she added, pushing back against the way she says her leadership treated her after filing: one with the Reno NVNG base, one with Nevada’s adjutant general’s office and other at Travis Air Force Base, California, where she completed a line-of-duty investigation for physical injuries resulting from her assaults.

Emails between the senior airman and members of her chain of command show that she was ordered to sit for an interview Aug. 14, despite requesting to have her attorney present. When she reported for the interview but refused to speak, and then left, her command slapped her with a written counseling.

“If you want this retaliation to stop, you have to end this criminal case,” has been the message from her command, the senior airman said.

The command had not made it clear who or what was the subject of the investigation, she said.

Kirschenbaum said that NVNG had no knowledge of any retaliation against the senior airman, and that the current CDI is not related to her sexual assault.

“The allegations that you are referencing were investigated by the Reno police department and several other jurisdictions,” Kirschenbaum said. “Reno PD concluded that no charges would be filed. We have either received a copy of the police report or have been told that all investigations are complete and that no charges will be filed in the other six jurisdictions.”

Because of their reserve status, National Guard units do not immediately refer potential criminal activity to a service investigative command, the way an active-duty unit would.

“Even though local law enforcement did not find probable cause and no criminal charges were filed the Nevada Air National Guard did relieve the alleged perpetrator of his full-time employment due to conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline (unprofessional relationship) and he is pending separation from military service,” Kirschenbaum said.

This is common practice, Christensen said, when civilian law enforcement decides not to pursue a case.

There can be several reasons for that, he said. Sometimes its that the unit is not experienced with running down and charging rape cases.

“They don’t really have the expertise of dealing with things criminally,” he said. “So I think what their default is, if they do address sexual assault, is to give somebody a reprimand and try to discharge them.”

While any sexual “relationship” between the two would be technically unprofessional, the charge does not take into account the full set of circumstances.

Their rank disparity creates a power dynamic that sexual assault experts attest removes any true consent, in addition to the fact that she has maintained for nearly a year that their “relationship” was systematic rape, not fraternization.

Other times, there is a back-and-forth with local law enforcement.

“The Guard is so intertwined, especially in these smaller communities ... the police force may be part of the Guard themselves,” he said. “It’s tough to even get the local police activated because they’re deferring to what the Guard’s doing.”

Or vice versa, in that the Guard can decline to push a criminal investigation if local law enforcement has decided they can’t make a case.

The state next door has also made headlines for alleged senior leader corruption.

In April 2019, the California Air Guard sacked its commander, Maj. Gen. Clay Garrison, amidst allegations he had covered up misconduct investigations. A California military department inspector general’s report detailed a toxic command climate rife with reprisal, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Despite the similar tales out of multiple, far-flung states, the Guard does not believe its organizations are having trouble responding to assault or harassment claims.

“The National Guard does not believe this to be a systemic issue, but we do recognize it as unacceptable in our workforce and we remain committed to the effort of complete eradication of sexual assault within our ranks,” Cunningham said.

Part of that is a new Guard-specific prevention program, she added, currently in development, that will complement the DoD- and state-level training members already receive.

“The National Guard continues to seek avenues to eradicate all sexual violence from our ranks, and continue to utilize the full weight of our resources to support each State across America to protect our greatest assets ―our soldiers and airmen,” she said.

While that may be the goal at the top, it’s different for those serving on the ground.

On Aug. 18, the Nevada airman got word that her wing command is moving to close her sexual assault case, without requesting higher review by OCI, against the urging of her victim advocate. It’s also against regulations, which stipulate that the state adjutant general is the only one who can close such a case.

Her fight continues.

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