By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Maj. Gen. Gregory Porter, Wyoming’s adjutant general, told the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee on Wednesday morning he is concerned with the number of sexual assault incidents being reported in the Wyoming National Guard.
In fiscal year 2022, which ended in June, there were 16 incidents of sexual assault reported within the Wyoming Military Department, up from six in 2021.
Nine of the incidents were handled internally, with the victims receiving services and assistance from the National Guard.
Seven incidents involved notifying local law enforcement agencies. Four assaults happened in FY2022, while three happened in prior years, but were not reported until 2022.
“Frankly, it’s shocking and we have to get after that as a society, as a country and as a state moving forward,” Porter said.
The Wyoming military consists of the Wyoming Army National Guard and the Wyoming Air National Guard.
There were two alleged National Guard perpetrators identified in the incidents, according to testimony to the committee. Porter told Cowboy State Daily one was on active military duty at F.E. Warren Air Force Base and the Cheyenne Police Department is still investigating the case. The alleged assault happened after duty hours at a local bar.
Porter said the Guard is waiting for local law enforcement to finish its investigation before it can address the matter.
The other accused perpetrator was not on active duty at the time of the assault. Local law enforcement investigated and closed the case without taking action.
Porter reported that alcohol was a factor in 43% of reported assaults.
The data collected shows most of the assaults typically happened during the evening hours to female victims ages 18-24 are acquainted with their assailants and were of equal rank and similar age to them, Porter said.
More than half of the cases happened in Wyoming, but none during drill weekends or any other military-sponsored functions.
Porter said it’s his goal to have zero incidents of sexual assault perpetrated by those within the ranks of the Wyoming National Guard and to ensure every victim of these attacks feels supported and free to report them to the Wyoming Military Department and Department of Defense without fear of retaliation.
State Sen. Bill Landen, R-Riverton, chair of the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee, said the military inherits larger-scale societal trends.
Wyoming is well above the national average and is in the U.S. top 10 when it comes to forcible rape, with 57 of every 100,000 people impacted. Porter mentioned a recent University of Wyoming study that found about a third of the school’s female students have experienced a forcible rape at some point in their lives.
“It’s a systemic problem in the country at the moment,” he said.
Michelle Mulberry, integrated primary prevention officer for the Wyoming Military, agreed.
“I do think it’s a true societal problem,” she said. “We want to increase education for folks as much as we can. It takes a cohesive effort.”
‘Old Boys Club?’
The reported rate of sexual assault incidents among Wyoming National Guard employees in 2022 was 0.5%, a rate of 583 incidents per 100,000, or more than 10 times the overall state average.
There are more than triple as many men as women in the Wyoming Military Department, which has 2,741 personnel.
In a 2020 article in the Philadelphia Enquirer, Marianne Bustin, who was a sexual assault response coordinator at the Air National Guard’s Horsham Base in Pennsylvania, described a vindictive “old boys club” in which sexual harassment and demeaning treatment of women prevailed, and those who complained were harshly reprimanded.
Bustin claimed she was fired for doing the job she was hired to do.
According to a 2021 WyoFile story, over the last decade the EEOC — the federal authority charged with investigating employer discrimination — has put the Wyoming National Guard on notice three times for workplace hostility, including mishandling of sexual harassment complaints.
An EEOC judge determined in 2019 that a former female Wyoming National Guard member was owed $600,000 in lost wages and legal fees for what they determined was a retaliatory firing of that individual, for reporting sexual harassment she experienced while serving in the Wyoming Military Department.
Another former employee of the Guard was awarded $221,000 in back pay, which then-Gov. Matt Mead described to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle as a “stinging decision” and that the Guard needed to “do a better job.”
Porter said the Wyoming Military Department is placing a greater focus on prevention efforts moving forward. He said the bulk of resources provided to addressing the matter has gone to taking care of sexual assault victims.
“Which is great, which is where it should be,” he said.
The death of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who was murdered by a fellow soldier in 2020 at Fort Hood, Texas, motivated the federal government to take a closer look at gender-based violence in the military. What followed was a seismic change in federal policies, including the removal of sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and retaliation investigations from the military chain of command and the establishment of sexual harassment as a punishable crime in the military.
Rep. Mark Baker, R-Green River, brought up the possibility of future incidents still not being reported.
“I know there is an aspect of underreporting here that maybe isn’t addressed,” he said. “People may not be comfortable no matter what we do to try and bring these things to light.”
Porter said he expects sexual assault reporting to go up in the future within the Wyoming Millitary, which he sees as evidence of positive progress.
“It’s gone up significantly since even last year,” he said. “I see reporting going up, I think we want reporting going up.”
Carla Thurin, executive director of Laramie County Safehouse Services, a shelter an advocacy service for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, elder abuse and trafficking, agrees with this perspective.
“If people are going to report incidents, it means they believe the people they are reporting to, whether its victim advocates, law enforcement or other people, are going to take those reports seriously,” Thurn said. “When you see an increase in reporting it’s definitely a good thing.”
Porter also said data gaps still remain when it comes to sexual harrassment reporting. He mentioned how there are different reporting mechanisms for each of the seven types of employees within the Wyoming Military.
Baker also brought up the possibility that females may feel more comfortable reporting incidents to other women. Porter said most of the Guard’s victim advocates are female.
There is no annual sexual assault training regimen in place for all Wyoming Millitary state employees, but Porter said this is being changed. Buddy aid and bystander training also will be added to the mandatory curriculum for student flight personnel. Porter said every time this training is done, it results in at least an informal incident report being made.
Another training will discuss grooming tactics.
“When a sexual perpetrator is trying to groom you for a sexual assault, what does that look like, how does that feel?” Porter said.
An officer from the Air Force, separate from the Wyoming Military chain of command, receives complaints within the state’s National Guard. The Equal employment manager also is considered outside the organization.
The National Guard allocated the Wyoming Military funding to hire a three-member prevention workforce team that addresses issues of sexual assault, harrassment, suicide and racism within the agency.
“Pretty excited about this program,” Porter said. “This helps us get after the prevention piece of this.”
There was one formal complaint of a hostile work environment made within the Wyoming Military that has been appealed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There were also three informal hostile work environment complaints filed with the state equal employment manager in the Wyoming Military.
Porter said these reports were not sexual in nature and no allegations of racism or extremism were made, which he said was an issue identified in 2021. That year, an Inspector General’s Unit Sensing Session received reports of offensive jokes, comments and stories based on gender, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.
Porter also said there were issues in 2021 of Wyoming National Guard members being sexually assaulted when they went out-of-state on assignment, which he said did not continue in 2022.
One complaint was made in relation to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate and two involved an employee’s relationship with a supervisor.
There was an additional informal complaint that was withdrawn.
Rep. John Romero-Martinez, R-Cheyenne, who served in the National Guard from 1998-2003, said he was forbidden from keeping a picture of Jesus on his desk while serving. He filed a complaint about it at the time, which he said was never resolved.
Chris Smith, a civilian senior legal advisor and lawyer for the Wyoming Military, said freedom of religion issues like these have been resolved, mentioning how he keeps a Bible on his desk.
The Wyoming Military also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services to accept complaints and act as equal opportunity counselors and investigators for discrimination and hostile work environment cases that can include sexual harrasment. This was a result of 2022 legislation providing funding for the position to WFS.
“I think the work we did last year has allowed our military department to carry forward,” Landen said. “I think the best thing we can do yearly is keep an eye on what’s going on out there.”
Porter said there also have been concerns expressed among Guard members about the vaccine mandate, issues with pay and bonuses, perceived lack of communication and full-time resourcing. He said the bonus issue is being addressed but is not completely fixed.
An external review of the Wyoming Military Department’s equal opportunity policies and procedures is taking place by the state of Wyoming.