EDITORIAL: Sexual assault reports required quicker action

The Alaska National Guard does an admirable job at protecting Alaskans. But it’s becoming abundantly clear that the organization needs to do far better at ensuring it protects its own service members.

News broke earlier this year that Gov. Sean Parnell has called for a federal investigation into sexual assault allegations within the Guards ranks in Alaska. It was the first time that many of those allegations had been made public, despite concerned Guard chaplains bringing them forward to a state legislator and the governors office as early as 2010.

Despite spearheading the well-intentioned and much-needed “Choose Respect” campaign against Alaska’s shockingly high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault, Gov. Parnell didn’t call for further investigation into those allegations four years ago.

He said they were too general to act upon but that he talked to Guard Adjutant Gen. Thomas Katkus to ensure that service members were able to make reports that would be forwarded to the appropriate people in the chain of command.

Simply put, that response wasn’t adequate. The Guard’s process was to report instances of sexual assault through the chain of command, and as the 2013 investigation into sexual misconduct at Fort Greely demonstrated, the upper links in that chain are sometimes party to the very issues being reported.

The general reports of sexual assault continued, and it wasn’t until late February of this year that the governor received a complaint that he felt was adequately specific to take action.

When he announced that he was seeking a federal investigation, Gov. Parnell said he had full faith in Gen. Katkus despite the fact that members of the Guard had gone outside the chain of command to make their reports because of a lack of faith in the response by their commanding officers.

The response to the allegations from members of the federal government has been much swifter. Members of the National Guard Bureau are conducting an investigation independent of the Alaska Guards chain of command that is scheduled for completion this fall.

Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski have been quick both to declare their full support for the investigation and to call for a full release of its findings. Saying she was “shocked and surprised that the National Guard says it has no power to pursue” allegations of sexual assault at the state level, Sen. Murkowski last week told National Guard Gen. Frank Grass that she wants to be told what the National Guard knew with regard to the allegations of sexual assault and when the Guard knew it.

It’s one of the issues that Sen. Murkowski sought to address late last year by sponsoring a bill that would have reformed the military justice system. The bill would have removed from the chain of command the decision to pursue reports of serious crimes like sexual assault within the ranks of all branches of the military.

Although Sen. Murkowski’s bill failed to pass the Senate, its clear she is making a diligent attempt to address the issue and to make sure the National Guard Bureaus investigation is unbiased, complete and fully transparent to the public. The state and the Alaska National Guard could well afford to take a lesson from her on how to respond when allegations of sexual assault come forward.

05/22/2014 - 6:36am