National Guard leaders were called before a Congressional panel to address sexual assault within their ranks, and chairwoman U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier did not mince words.
"We are here today to pull back the curtain that has allowed this insidious rot," said Speier, a California Democrat and chair of the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee.
"The National Guard is on notice," she told Guard leaders. "Sexual assault and harassment will not be tolerated. We pay your bills. We fund you. The game is over."
Speier held the hearing Wednesday in response to a Journal Sentinel/Cap Times investigation last year that found Guard units have buried sexual assault allegations, retaliated against women who have come forward and withheld crucial documents from victims.
The National Guard, comprised of 54 militias in each state and territory, is controlled by governors but funded primarily by the federal government. The National Guard Bureau, based Virginia, oversees those state units but does not regulate them.
Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the bureau, and Maj. Gen. Charles Walker, who oversees the agency's sexual assault investigations team, testified at the hearing.
Speier asked Hokanson whether he had authority to address the sexual assaults that take place in state units.
"My understanding is that your authority is one of encouraging, cajoling, subtly hoping they will do the right thing," she said. "Do you have any power?"
Hokanson said he had the authority he needed to work with state units to ensure they have the guidance they need. Walker said that the bureau works collaboratively with state leaders to respond to sexual assault.
Speier raised questions about whether states could be held accountable.
"It's $26 billion dollars that we dole out every year to these states, and we have no control, no authority to protect those National Guard service members if the state chooses not to," she said.
Because the National Guard is controlled by state leaders, many federal reforms, including changes signed into law by President Biden in December to remove prosecution of sexual assault cases from the military chain of command, do not apply to the force. Instead, Guard members are governed by 54 different military justice laws, which can vary widely.
Hokanson did not offer much new information about the bureau's efforts beyond shifting to a focus on prevention with better training and an increased focus on identifying risk factors that could lead to a sexual assault, like how alcohol is used during drill weekends or Guard functions.
"We are working on ways to help states with better guidance and resources," he said.
Reports of sexual assault in the Guard have increased every year over the last nine years, more than tripling from 173 in 2009 to 634 in 2020. So far this fiscal year, it is up over last year, Walker said.
In interviews with the Journal Sentinel last fall, bureau commanders said they were working to implement broad reforms to better protect thousands across the force. Those changes include increased transparency, improved data collection and analysis, routine program reviews and more emphasis on prevention.
"Our guardsmen and their families must have confidence in their chain of command. They need to have confidence in the offices that investigate sexual assault," Hokanson said Wednesday. "We have to earn that confidence by establishing and maintaining a culture of trust in every state and territory and in D.C."
Still, little data exists on the outcome of sexual assault cases in the Guard, where 90% of allegations involve members who are working for their states rather than the federal government. Guard records show that 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 bureau reorganized its Office of Complex Investigations, which conducts administrative inquiries when requested by a state. That office is now an independent entity reporting to senior Guard leadership rather than the bureau’s general counsel.
The office has since increased the number of investigators by 60%. Now, 29 staff members investigate sexual assault allegations from state units if local law enforcement declines to take the cases.
The bureau also has said it is retooling its training curriculum.
For years, the Guard has relied on the same training and curriculum to combat sexual assault as used by full-time forces. But the bureau is now creating a curriculum that fits the Guard's monthly training schedule and distinct culture.
Speier asked Hokanson and Walker to report back on a variety issues, including information on repeat offenders.
"I really think we have more work to do here," she said.
Katelyn Ferral is an investigative reporter for the Journal Sentinel. Email her at email@example.com.
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: National Guard sexual assault topic of Congressional hearing