Sexual Assault in Nat’l Guard: Parnell Knew
On Feb. 28, 2014, our governor, Sean Parnell, wrote a letter asking the Department of Defense to investigate “reports of sexual assaults and other behavior creating a hostile environment and culture within portions of the Alaska National Guard.”
He explained that he was compelled to request the investigation by “information I recently learned.”
That was not true. In fact, it was very far from the truth.
Military officers had risked their careers to tell the governor personally that female soldiers had been sexually assaulted by other Guard members and that those assaults were not only not investigated, they were covered up by senior officers.
And when did the governor really learn about this misconduct?
In 2010, four years before he finally decided somebody needed to do something about the pirate ship that was his National Guard.
Here’s some of what happened, taken from the accounts of people directly involved:
In 2010, several of the victims of sexual assault and misconduct were distraught and frustrated by the Guard leadership’s unwillingness to investigate their complaints and protect them from retribution by victimizers. Eventually, in desperation, they took their stories to their military chaplains. Three chaplains, convinced that they could not trust senior officers of the Guard to respond appropriately, selflessly decided to take their concerns over the heads of those officers directly to the governor.
The chaplains were able to connect with the governor because, in addition to his military duties, one of them had also worked in administration for the Grace Christian Church school, which Parnell’s daughters had attended. Using that connection, he was able to arrange a phone appointment with Parnell.
On Nov. 18, 2010, the chaplains — a major and two lieutenant colonels — gathered in a church office for their telephone conference with the governor. The chaplains, all feeling personally uncomfortable and professionally at risk for going outside the chain of command, told Parnell, their commander in chief, what they thought he needed to know about the widespread lack of trust in senior Guard leadership, the mishandling of sexual assault complaints and the misuse of Guard funds and resources. The call lasted 20 minutes.
Parnell thanked them for their courage.
Less than two weeks later, on Nov. 30, 2010, several Air National Guardsmen sent a complaint to the governor asking him to “accept the resignation of Major Gen. Thomas Katkus because of ‘multiple acts of moral turpitude’ he had allowed to run rampant, including drug trafficking, sexual assaults/rape, illegal use of aircraft.”
Katkus, who has since been promoted by Parnell to adjutant general of the Alaska Guard, is a member of the governor’s Cabinet.
Col. Robert Doehl, a former vice commander of the Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th wing, now works for Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, as a special assistant for military and veterans’ affairs.
On Dec. 3, 2010, Doehl wrote a seven-page letter to the governor. He thanked Parnell for a meeting they’d had that same day.
Doehl went on to repeat and document allegations about the Guard that he had shared with Parnell in their meeting. The allegations included abuse of authority, safety shortcuts that had resulted in loss of life and aircraft, cover-ups, cronyism and retaliation against whistleblowers. He named names, specifically accusing Lt. Gen. Craig Campbell (he became lieutenant governor in August 2009) and then-Maj. Gen. Katkus of failing to stop the misconduct.
That meeting also included the chaplains, the major and the lieutenant colonels, along with several other officers. By that time, several female soldier rape victims had submitted written statements to the Governor’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, Katie Tepas, according to one of the chaplains. Your office already has those statements, the officers told Parnell. Tepas had also met with some of the victims, who told her their stories in person, according to two officers who heard it from the victims directly.
Karl Hansen, a former special agent with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division and a former member of security details for Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, is now the medical ombudsman at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. In that role, he has dealt extensively with the Guard sexual assault victims. Hansen said one of the victims told him that Tepas had asked why she, the victim, didn’t like Katkus and what she thought of the governor. The meeting led nowhere. There was no investigation.
During my conversation with him, I asked Hansen what he thought of Parnell’s “Choose Respect” campaign against sexual and domestic violence. He said, “The victims I’ve talked to feel it’s just lip service. I’m dealing with women who are suicidal because of what has happened to them — some attempting multiple times.”
On Dec. 29, 2011, the lieutenant colonels spoke by phone with Parnell’s chief of staff, Mike Nizich. Nizich had been present for other discussions and was the designated contact person for the chaplains. Nizich said he would convey their concerns to the governor. The chaplains stayed in touch with Nizich — through Nizich’s personal email, not his state email — over the following months.
By early fall of 2013, state Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, had been briefed on the allegations about the Guard. He knew one of the chaplains through their service together on a community board. Dyson said he went to the governor with information about the pervasive climate of “boys will be boys” and the “circling of the wagons” around alleged perpetrators in the Guard.
“It appeared to me that the governor was not giving enough credibility to the information the chaplains were giving him,” Dyson told me.
In October 2013, reporter Sean Cockerham wrote a story about the sexual assault allegations for the Daily News. Cockerham reported that Lt. Col. Jane Wawersik, a member of the Guard and a former Anchorage police officer, had been appointed to investigate the charges of sexual misconduct. (I’m told she was appointed by Brig. Gen. Catherine Jorgensen.)
The chaplains were asking why it had taken so long. It had been three years since they first told the governor what had happened to some women in the Guard.
After the Cockerham story appeared, Dyson went to the governor a second time, encouraging him to take an active role in addressing the chaplains’ concerns. “The question of the propriety of the chaplains in speaking to the media came up,” Dyson said. He meant the governor didn’t like the fact they had talked to a reporter.
On Dec. 6, 2013, Parnell’s deputy commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, McHugh Pierre, summoned Lt. Col. Wawersik, the sexual assault investigator, to his office on JBER. He wanted to know if she had been giving information to Dyson. Wawersik told him she had not.
On Dec. 9, Pierre called two of the chaplains to his office. After asking which lawmakers they had talked to, Pierre asked them to sign a letter stating that they would not talk to legislators. Both declined, saying they would first have to consult an attorney. They were not allowed to take a copy of Pierre’s letter with them.
The next day, their attorney, Wayne Anthony Ross of Anchorage, wrote to Pierre asking for a copy of the document. He also asked Pierre to explain the “established guidelines” he had referenced in his discussion with the two chaplains.
As of Friday, almost five months after he wrote Pierre, Ross had not received a reply, he told me.
In February 2014, Dyson contacted the governor a third time and again strongly encouraged him to act. Two weeks later the governor requested a federal investigation.
When I asked Dyson why he thought it had taken so long for the governor to do something, he said, “He was too loyal to his people” and he “lacked a healthy skepticism.”
I think that’s a charitable analysis. I’ll just say it doesn’t suggest the governor had an excess of concern for sexual assault victims, or the need for a functional National Guard.
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, has been asking some of the same questions I have about these events. This past Friday, when I emailed the governor’s office asking to talk to Parnell about the Guard, his spokeswoman sent me a copy of a letter the governor had just sent to French.
In the letter, Parnell suggested it wasn’t possible for him to have followed up on the chaplains’ sexual assault information. He posed this question to French:
“Did the chaplains also tell you they were unable to state case-specific detail with our office to substantiate their concerns because of their duty of confidentiality to the individuals they counseled?”
The governor conveniently overlooks the fact that the sexual assaults had been reported earlier within the chain of command. Presumably all Parnell would have had to do was ask the nearest general to get him the names and allegations of all the Guard soldiers who had reported being raped in the last few years. And if that didn’t work, his office already had the victims’ statements, and someone there had talked to victims.
Parnell’s letter continued: “Even without detail specific enough to pinpoint a victim willing to report, nor a perpetrator, we made sure through the Adjutant General that Guard members had a safe route to report sexual misconduct, and that their allegations would be taken seriously and investigated to conclusion, including any appropriate penalties. Where criminal conduct was alleged, we directed referral to the appropriate law enforcement agency.”
And who was the Adjutant General who would ensure the safety and proper treatment of victims and the prosecution of perpetrators?
Thomas Katkus, of course.
Both of Alaska’s U.S. senators, Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, responded relatively quickly to the public allegations. Sean Parnell, the commander in chief of the Alaska Guard, waited nearly four years.
In the meantime, the victims suffered and the pirate ship sailed on.
Cross-posted from the Anchorage Daily News