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Wyoming National Guard

Wyoming National Guard Promotes First Female Infantry Commander

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming National Guard marked a historic milestone this week when it named its first woman to command an infantry unit.

1st Lt. Alyssa Brenner is the new infantry commander and the second female to command a combat arms unit in Wyoming, joining Capt. Leslie Brazil, former commander of Alpha Battery, 2-300th Field Artillery Regiment.

Hailing from Marshfield, Wisconsin, Brenner first enlisted in the Guard when she was in college. After a year, she decided to seek a commission and completed the Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course.

She has been with Charlie Company, 1-297th Infantry Regiment in Afton, since July 2016.

According to the National Guard, the number of women serving in combat arms units has slowly grown since the ban on women in combat units was lifted in 2015.

“It’s a cool thing to see,’ Brenner said about when she sees fellow female officers starting to command other units. “To the women who want to do these things, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t.”

Brenner currently resides in Golden, Colorado, where she serves as a police officer with the Golden Police Department.

Brenner received command of the 1-297th on Nov. 5 from the outgoing commander, Capt. Spencer Jones, in the traditional change of command ceremony, which represents the formal transfer of authority and responsibility for a unit from one commanding officer to another.

After the ceremony, Brenner shared some thoughts about military service with her soldiers.

“What you’re doing with your service is honorable, and the people of this country do appreciate it. It’s worth the sacrifice. It’s an honor to serve with you,” she said. “When things get tough, remember that it’s important what you are doing, and it does matter. Keep pushing.”

She followed with advice for her fellow leaders.

“Continue to set the example and never ask your soldiers to do something that you wouldn’t be willing to do as well.”

Brenner said she is excited for the opportunity to command the unit and feels lucky to be able to do so.

“I’ve worked with these soldiers for the past five years. We’ve been through all the training and deployments together. I know them, and they know me. They make the job easy,” she said. “It will be a big challenge, but I’m excited about it.”

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Wyoming National Guard Makes History With Artillery Test

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Members of the Wyoming Army National Guard made history last month by conducting its first test of a weapon deployment system.

Members of the Wyoming Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 300th Field Artillery unit conducted its first live-fire of HIMARS Rapid Infiltration artillery at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah in late January.

The exercise involved transporting a portable artillery launching system, the HIMARS, by airplane to a point near the target.

“For the 2-300th, it’s kind of historic for us,” said Lt. Col. Robert Lemay Lejeune, commander of the 2-300th.

Missions in which artillery launchers are flown to specific areas, called HIRAIN missions, have been around for a long time in the military and are a staple of combat in the Middle East, which the 2-300th consistently trains for.

“This is one of our mission essential tasks,” Training Officer Maj. Shawn Stensaas said. “It will help us improve and maintain our proficiencies and relevancy to support missions around the world, wherever they may be.”

The unit first began practice for the live fire exercise in 2015. For the January exercise, it used a C-130 Hercules aircraft provided by the National Guard’s 153rd Airlift Wing out of Cheyenne.

Using the aircraft allows the artillery greater mobility and a substantial increase in the overall range. This tactic makes HIRAIN missions very flexible.

“It can be used in any theatre where you can land a C-17 or a C-130,” Lejeune said.

The normal method the soldiers of the 2-300th unit use to fire their artillery is to drive their rockets to a set point on the battlefield and then fire from that location.

While this method can be highly effective, it is limited by the range of the artillery used, usually 18-42 miles. This range can be extended by conducting a HIRAIN mission.

“I can conduct a raid but it’s as far as I can drive and secure myself forward on the battlefield,” Lejeune said. “Which is relatively short when you compare the distance to an aircraft. So by working with the Air Force, we add this great new capability in terms of range.”

This exercise that took place Jan. 21-22 saw the 2-300th load two HIMARS and one Humvee onto the C-17 Globemaster III. The airplane then took off from Cheyenne and flew to Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah.

The following day, the C-17 crew flew the members of the 2-300th to Dugway Proving Grounds where the HIMARS were removed the aircraft, guard members obtained a good firing position and then fired the payload.

The soldiers then returned to Wyoming.

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Former Wyoming National Guard Major Awarded $600k Settlement in Discrimination Case

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By Jen Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

CHEYENNE – Serving in the U.S. Air Force had pretty much been a dream job for Maj. Rachel Bennett. 

After graduating as a second lieutenant from the University of Michigan’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program in the late 1990s, Bennett served in the U.S. Air Force before becoming a security forces officer at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne. 

If there was a bias against women in the military, she didn’t personally experience it, she said Rather, she worked hard and ascended up the ranks where she was rewarded with a plethora of opportunities to grow her skills and career.

Bennett said she’d had an idealistic impression of service members in uniform as being universally good people. That all changed, however, when she arrived at the Air National Guard base in Wyoming, she said.

There, she would experience first-hand what she referred to as a “toxic and retaliatory environment for women,” that would ultimately result in her losing her job and being denied the right to appeal the decision in what evolved into a nearly decade-long legal fight. 

The case stems back to an incident in 2012, when Bennett claimed she’d been unfairly retaliated against, and ultimately fired from her position in the human relations division, for submitting complaints on behalf of a handful of female service members who claimed they had been sexually harassed by certain male officers. Not only were the complaints not taken seriously, Bennett said, but she feels she was punished for attempting to address what she said was a hostile work environment rife with sexual harassment.

Less than a month after submitting the complaints to her superior, Bennett, then a new mother, was fired for what was ostensibly attributed to her post-partum depression. She was told that three of her female co-workers had submitted formal complaints about her “erratic behavior” and increasing difficulty working with her.  

The firing came as a big surprise, for Bennett, who said she had just received a glowing performance review a few months prior. Instead, she feels she was being reprimanded for bringing the harassment claims forward and unfairly targeted.

“They terminated me because I had recently become a new mom,” she said. “I was specifically told I was not able to be a new mother and a commander.”

Bennett has doubts about the authenticity of those complaints or the accuracy of claims that her work had slipped, but ultimately, she was powerless to argue the decision. Instead, she asked to seek medical treatment or counseling, but was denied. 

When she asked the human resources director for the form to fill out a federal equal employment opportunity (EEO) complaint petitioning her firing, she was told that as a military member, she was subject to the jurisdiction of the Military Equal Employment Opportunity division, which is overseen by an adjutant general. Only civilians are protected under federal EEO laws.

In Bennett’s case, she was both. She served as an officer in a civilian position, known as a Title 32, or dual status technician. Because she wore a uniform to work, the Guard reasoned, she fell under the jurisdiction of the National Guard, which wasn’t subject to federal EEO guidelines.

After being fired from her civilian job, Bennett remained an active-duty Guard member and attended monthly weekend trainings, where she said the retribution continued and she was more or less sidelined in a back office and not invited to participate in drills. Given the hostile environment, Bennett asked for but was denied a transfer to another base. Instead, she stuck it out until winter of 2017, when she retired after 20 years of service. 

During this time, Bennett hired lawyers to fight the Wyoming National Guard’s decision to handle her case itself and her case ultimately cycled through three Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) judges. The first two dropped the case without explanation, or so she thought, though it would turn out that the Guard was stonewalling.

The second judge to rule on her case, Daniel Preciado, had determined that Bennett’s claim did in fact fall under EEOC jurisdiction and had ordered the Wyoming National Guard to engage in the legal process of discovery, which it never did. 

Finally, a third EEOC judge, Nancy Weeks, of Denver, Colorado, ruled in Bennett’s favor against the Wyoming Air National Guard, awarding a settlement of upwards of $600,000 in lost wages and legal fees.

According to Weeks, the Wyoming National Guard sent her a letter in 2015, stating its position that the case was closed and reiterating its stance that it was the only agency that could decide claims from dual-status technicians and had done so accordingly.

In 2013, an adjutant general had reviewed Bennett’s claim and determined that her firing had been justified, according to Wyoming Air National Guard Chief of Public Affairs Rusty Ridley. Her case was also reviewed by three independent adjutant generals from bases outside Wyoming, Ridley added.

“They all came to the same conclusion,” he said by phone Wednesday. “Her termination was based on those formal complaints and was valid.”

Bennett disagrees as does Weeks, who ruled in her written judgement last June, citing the passing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by Congress in 2016, which granted the right for dual-status technicians to file federal EEO claims under Title VII, for conduct not related to their military activity.

Whether this law applies retroactively for claims filed prior to 2017 remains the sticking point for cases like Bennett’s, where jurisdiction is subject to opposing interpretations of the law.

Weeks argues that it does. In a scathing ruling in 2019, Weeks condemned the Guard for its repeated refusal to participate in the appeals process, accused the agency of gross misconduct in ignoring the ruling, ultimately ordering them to pay Bennett’s outstanding wages dating back to her firing in 2012 as well as her legal fees, which are in excess of $20,000.

“Sanctions should be granted in an amount to deter future behavior,” Weeks wrote in her decision, noting the number of times the Guard refused to comply with the EEOC’s orders and its “less than candid interaction.”

The National Guard has until Jan. 28 to pay Bennett’s settlement, though she will likely have to wait until the battle goes to the federal courts for clarification as the Guard remains steadfast in its position, Ridley said.

Currently, Bennett’s case is the only one still pending in Wyoming, to the best of Ridley’s recollection.

He referred details about any subsequent legal actions to Wyoming National Guard’s lawyer, Chris Smith, who did not immediately respond prior to publication.

Changing the culture

For Bennett, the situation goes beyond financial restitution and is a result of a deep-rooted “boys’ club” culture rampant with sexual harassment in the Wyoming National Guard that seeks to bury any claims of wrongdoing by punishing those who complain. 

She can point to a half-dozen women she personally knows who have been driven into silence through harsh reprimands, including demotions in rank, firings and overt hostility from peers and those in command.

The message is clear, Bennett said: Shut up or risk ruining your reputation and career. 

Bennett pointed to the 2020 firing of the Equal Opportunity Office director assigned to Hill Air Force Base in Utah to root out such sexual harassment. According an article in the Military Times, the removal was the result of three whistleblowers sounding the alarm over the EEO director’s mishandling of their complaints. 

A subsequent investigation by the Air Force Material Command’s Inspector General validated the whistleblowers’ allegations, the article said, showing that employees were discouraged from submitting sexual harassment claims by their superiors because they wouldn’t be taken seriously.

The EEO director was also accused of illegally modifying and rejecting complaints and allegations as well as providing misleading information about the process itself, among other charges.

In the end, Hill Air Force Base promised to improve its EEO training and issued new policies in response. 

This incident is just one of many, Bennett said, citing yet another case reported by the media in 2020 documenting the experience of Marianne Bustin, a sexual assault response coordinator at the Air National Guard’s Horsham base in Pennsylvania, who claimed she was fired for attempting to do the job for which she was hired.

In a Jan. 17, 2020, article in the Philadelphia Enquirer, Bustin described a vindictive “old boys club” in which sexual harassment and the demeaning treatment of women prevailed, and those who complained were harshly reprimanded. 

Bennett’s case has left a permanent stain on an institution she once revered, she said, noting that she’s even trying to talk her sons out of serving in the military. 

That said, she’s hoping that her case sends a clear message and paves the way for others to seek justice. A lot of people aren’t as tenacious as she is, she said, and it’s way too easy to get lost in the cracks and just give up.

In the end, it’s not about the money, Bennett said, but rather paving the way for others to be treated fairly and have their cases heard.

“I feel validated because I wasn’t permitted to use the process,” she said, “which sends the wrong message. Employees shouldn’t shiver in fear at the thought of retaliation. It just motivates people to keep their mouths shut.”

Ridley noted that yes, there have been claims of sexual harassment at the Wyoming Air National Guard base, but he couldn’t immediately provide a number only to say that there had not been many. The Guard takes these claims very seriously, he said, and those accused of such misconduct are reprimanded and subject to the fullest extent of punishment.

They have also implemented sexual harassment and discrimination training programs and now employ a sexual response coordinator on base to handle any such claims, Ridley said. He contends that Bennett’s claim had been fairly and independently investigated and had nothing to do with her pregnancy or gender.

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More Than 100 Wyoming National Guardsmen to Help With Biden Inauguration

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

More than 100 Wyoming National Guard Soldiers and airmen have volunteered to support crowd control, communications and logistics during the 59th Presidential Inauguration for President-elect Joe Biden in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.

“We are proud to support, and be part of, the long tradition of supporting this historical event for our country,” said Maj. Gen. Greg Porter, adjutant general for Wyoming. “When we are requested, we continue to provide our governor and civilian authorities properly manned, trained and equipped forces available wherever and whenever they are needed.”

The 59th Presidential Inauguration, like all presidential inaugurations, is considered a national special security event. The preparation for a NSSE is a cooperative effort among federal, state and district agencies.

The National Guard provides a wide variety of capabilities that can seamlessly integrate with interagency partners to enhance inauguration support capabilities.

Several states are activating to provide timely, safe and proactive support to civilian authorities. While the costs associated with this deployment will be paid for with federal dollars, these National Guard professionals will remain under their respective governor’s control for up to 31 days and adhere to D.C. law.

Military support to inaugurations by Guard members dates back 232 years to when General George Washington began his inaugural journey from Mount Vernon, Vermont to New York City.

Local militias (the modern-day National Guard), joined his inaugural procession as it passed through towns along the route to be joined by members of the regular Army, additional local militia and Revolutionary War veterans once Washington arrived in New York City.

This presidential military escort then accompanied him to Federal Hall for the presidential oath. The National Guard and other military units have continued this tradition of inaugural support ever since.

Additional National Guard Soldiers and airmen will be made available to provide support to Wyoming authorities, should the need arise.

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Gordon Asks Wyo National Guard To Assist In COVID Contact Tracing

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Members of the Wyoming National Guard will be assisting the Wyoming Department of Health in its efforts to collect information about people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Gov. Mark Gordon announced Monday that in the face of recent rapid increases in coronavirus cases in the state, the Guard was asked to help the Health Department with “contact tracing” for the next 30 days.

Rusty Ridley, a spokesman for the Wyoming Military Department, said 20 members of the Wyoming Army National Guard and Wyoming Air National Guard would help interview people who have been diagnosed with a confirmed case of coronavirus to see who they may have been in contact with.

“Their primary responsibility will be calling Wyoming residents who test positive for COVID,” he said. “They’ll be employed the same way as the team at the Health Department, it’s just a matter of personnel and providing assistance.”

In the last 10 days, the number of active coronavirus cases in Wyoming has gone up by more than 360.

The sudden increase has left the state Health Department and county health departments needing help as they try to determine who coronavirus patients have been in contact with, said Kim Deti, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department.

“The temporary additional support for us and for our local county partners will help and is welcome,” she said.

Ridley said the Guard members would be issued laptop computers by the Health Department to record the information they collect. That information will be used to update the data the Health Department keeps on the spread of the coronavirus, he said.

He added that the Guard members would be working at different locations around the state to collect the information.

Deti said the 30-day length of the Guard’s assistance can be extended if needed.

“But, at this time, we aren’t sure that will be necessary,” she said. “Again, this is intended as some temporary help.”

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Wyoming Highway Patrol Recognizes Wyoming Military Serving Abroad

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The Wyoming Highway Patrol on Friday recognized and thanked Wyoming military members who are serving overseas.

In recognition of Remember Everyone Deployed (R.E.D.) Friday, the patrol posted a photograph of members of the Wyoming Air Guard who came together at an undisclosed location in southwest Asia.

The photo shows about 20 members of the Wyoming 153rd Air Wing gathered on a flight line, holding a “Welcome to Wyoming” sign made by Guard Master Sgt. Mike Simmons, a Wyoming Highway Patrol employee.

“This is the first time the Wyoming Air Guard has deployed with a ‘WELCOME TO WYOMING’ sign, borrowing the tradition from the Wyoming Army National Guard’s deployment from the Korean War,” the Highway Patrol’s post said.

The guardsmen have been in the country for a little more than one month supporting military operations in the 332nd Expeditionary Air Wing (also known as the “Red Tails”), the post said. They are expected to be deployed well into the new year and will miss the holiday season with their families.

R.E.D. was created to urge people to show some form of support for deployed service members every Friday until they can return home.

The goal of R.E.D. is to carry the message to national levels, serve the military community, and help their families by showing them that they are never forgotten.

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Standing room only crowd bids farewell to National Guard members

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Frank Gambino for Cowboy State Daily

A standing room only crowd filled the Natrona County High School auditorium on Wednesday to bid farewell to 130 members of the Wyoming National Guard who are being deployed to the Middle East.

Friends and family members of the 130 guardsmen departing for a stay of nine months to one year filled the high school’s auditorium to take part in a farewell ceremony.

The guardsmen are part of the 2nd Battalion of the 300th Field Artillery.

Jason Lutz, a Natrona County Sheriff’s Office employee who was leaving for his third deployment, said the farewell ceremony Wednesday was emotional.

“But it’s good to be emotional with them,” he said. “Once we get deployed and get into a groove, and it’s the same with the family, once they get into adjusting, I think everything goes fairly well. It’s going to be a hard time, but we should be able to communicate very well.”

Guardsman Greyson Buckingham is departing for his first deployment and is looking forward to marrying his fiancee when he returns.

“My fiancee is not too thrilled I’m leaving, but she understands,” he said. “She knew what she was signing up for.”

The unit headed first to Fort Bliss in Texas before heading to the Middle East for its sixth deployment.

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