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Alaska Editorial: Right way to close ranks

Posted: November 6, 2013 - 1:00am

The followingeditorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

The Alaska Army National Guard may be still mostly a man’s world. But it’s a world in which women soldiers should feel safe -- among brothers, not predators or power trippers.

The current investigation of sexual misconduct in the guard is both troubling and welcome, especially given the sense of betrayal expressed by some women and the frustration and anger of officers -- including two chaplains -- who have been trying to both help victims in the ranks and raise the alarm with commanders.

We don’t know how the investigation will play out, but we’ve read two very different narratives about the issue. Some say the guard has been slow to respond and left alleged victims out in the cold. Adjutant Gen. Thomas Katkus wrote in these pages last week that the guard is committed to justice and support for victims, investigates every complaint and has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct.

They both can’t be right.

And while the investigation is ongoing, there’s enough smoke here to testify to some level of fire.

When an investigator needs a protective order against a subject of her investigation, when chaplains question the guard’s response, when a lieutenant colonel butts heads with command over where and how to take complaints, when alleged victims say they have no faith in the guard to do justice, something is seriously wrong.

The guard should have a sense of urgency to know the truth, hold people accountable and leave every one of its members in no doubt about standards of behavior and certainty of justice.

In any individual case, the guard has to balance support for the alleged victim with the rights of the accused. Justice, methodical and fair, has to run its course. The gist of the complaints is that too often that does not happen, that victims are victimized again by either a lack of response or a hostile response, and that the problem of sexual assault and harassment is far greater than the guard wants to acknowledge, and a problem not accurately reflected in its numbers.

In a Compass piece on these pages last week, Gen. Katkus said that any acts of sexual misconduct “have no place in America’s work environment. This responsibility to our military family and our state workforce is nonnegotiable.”

Those are unequivocal words.

Laddie Shaw, a Navy SEAL veteran of the Vietnam War and a predecessor of Katkus at the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said last week that command has to make clear that “circling the wagons” around an accused comrade, or trying to handle things “in-house,” is not acceptable. All members need to get the message that any serious complaint will be treated seriously. No glossing over, no protecting members who violate the rules of conduct.

And he said that soldiers should have no fear about raising hell if they think a violation is getting buried in the chain of command. What soldiers should fear are not the consequences of jumping the chain of command, but the consequences of not doing so if they’re convinced justice isn’t being done. That’s a message that needs to come from the top.

As Shaw said, warriors will close ranks around their own, give the benefit of the doubt and more to their brothers. But those ranks should never shield any who abuse that bond to excuse sexual violence, predation or harassment. Those ranks should provide support for any victims.

So many good people serve in the guard. They shouldn’t let their service be sullied by the actions of anyone who violates the code that Katkus expressed in his Compass.

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