Politics

Independent oversight of Guard sexual misconduct nixed

Adjutant General Greg Knight of the Vermont National Guard is opposing the creation of a chief diversity officer. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

When Rep. Jean O’Sullivan introduced a bill that would create a chief diversity officer position in the Vermont National Guard, she hoped it would make the organization more welcoming and inclusive of women.

But the idea has stalled. The bill didn’t make it out of committee this session, despite urging from some lawmakers and advocates that the position would address ingrained sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the Guard. This has been an area of concern for O’Sullivan, D-Burlington, dating back to 2013, when she first introduced a bill requiring that the Guard annually report its sexual assault data to the Legislature. 

The Guard’s reputation as an unwelcoming and sometimes hostile place for women was also the subject of a 2018 VTDigger investigation, which found that women in the Guard faced harassment and retaliation for reporting unsavory behavior. And in the wake of Army Spec. Vanessa Guillén’s murder, whose remains were found at Fort Hood in Texas after family members said she experienced sexual harassment, advocates say there is more urgency for a diversity officer in Vermont. 

But O’Sullivan recognized that the proposal would be a heavy lift, primarily because the position challenges the traditional hierarchy of the Vermont National Guard. The chief diversity officer wouldn’t report to the adjutant general, the leader of the Guard. Instead the officer would serve at the pleasure of the governor — a model that has struck unease among some lawmakers. 

Adjutant General Gregory Knight is wary about the position because he thinks it’s redundant. 

“It is the first such position in the world,” O’Sullivan said, referring to its independent reporting structure. The position is charged with creating programs to increase diversity and an inclusive culture, tied to the Guard’s intention to recruit and retain more women.

“I think this may be a model for the country. It takes the conversation completely out of the chain of command,” O’Sullivan said. She argues that independence would give the officer the authority needed to hold the Guard accountable for racism, sexism and sexual misconduct.

That reporting structure, specifically that the chief diversity officer would operate independently of the adjutant general’s authority, raised concerns among Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, and some of the members of the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, where the bill first landed. 

Stevens, who chairs the committee, said he and others felt the reporting structure of the position could cause hierarchical clashes in the Guard, which is primarily why the bill did not move forward. 

“The military culture, as we’ve seen with these allegations in cases that have already come forward, can be pretty closed,” Stevens said. “And so adding on something like this without knowing that it’s going to have a good chance to succeed can in fact result in its failure. Because I think people can get shut out.” 

However, another National Guard position did move forward in the Legislature this session, which also originated in the House General Committee. H.750 proposed the creation of a provost marshal position, which would serve as a liaison between law enforcement and Guard officials if crimes are committed on bases. 

Before the bill was passed out of the Senate, the chamber added an amendment that would also require the position to report and document allegations of sexual assault in the Guard. 

O’Sullivan believes Knight’s support of the provost marshal position, and not the chief diversity officer position, points to a potential blind spot in his plan to address sexism and sexual misconduct.

“I think Greg is living up to his word,” O’Sullivan said in reference to Knight’s central mission to address sexism and misconduct. “But we differ in approach. I don’t think you can police your way out of this.” 

Knight said he disagrees with O’Sullivan’s characterization that he may be relying on the provost marshal position to address sexual misconduct in the Guard. He said the chief diversity officer and provost marshal have “separate and distinct” roles and would serve different purposes. 

He said he thinks the chief diversity officer position is redundant to other roles that already exist within the Guard, specifically the equal employment manager position which is currently being held by Duffy Jamieson. 

The provost marshal role aims to enforce legal accountability on the base whereas the equal employment manager is working to build a culture of diversity and inclusivity in the Guard, Knight said. This is also the primary role of the chief diversity officer, hence his concern for redundancy. 

Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, D-Burlington. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The major difference is that the chief diversity officer would report to the governor, and not the adjutant general, which is who the equal employment manager reports to. Knight thinks this independent reporting method to the governor is also unnecessary.

“I am accountable,” he said “for what happens and what doesn’t happen in the National Guard.” 

“I answer to the governor. I work for the governor. But I answer to, in large part, the Legislature,” Knight said. “So there’s accountability. I don’t know that this bill is what’s needed.” 

Knight says he has recently hired several officers who are charged with handling sexual harassment and assault prevention work. Lt. Col. Diane Roberts was brought on in June in a newly created equal opportunity officer position. The Guard has also recently filled another equal opportunity officer position and a victim advocate coordinator, both of which have been vacant for some time. 

He also pointed to mandated, annual, sexual assault prevention trainings and the continuation of a “Lean In” speaking series — based off Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book about women empowerment in the workplace — as further elements of his holistic goal to change the culture of the Guard. He’s also asked the National Guard bureau to conduct an assessment of the Guard’s culture. When it’s concluded sometime in the fall, Knight said the Guard will act on the report’s recommendations.

Knight said “I suppose there could be that potential” of a clash among Guard leadership if the chief diversity officer were to report to the governor while the equal employment manager reports to him. 

“My concern is that I’ve got two people doing the same job,” Knight said. “Only one answers to somebody else.”

Doris Sumner testifies before the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Doris Sumner, a former equal employment manager in the Guard and outspoken advocate for women in the armed services, said she doesn’t think Knight wants to embrace the kind of independent oversight that’s needed to truly correct the problems of sexism and harassment the Guard is facing. 

She referred to his testimony before the House General Committee in March, during which he laid out his concerns about the position creating redundancies. “He just blew a bunch of smoke up their butts,” she said. 

“A lot of the representatives and senators like to think ‘Oh it’s the military, it’s got its own, you know, military justice system. So they’re all good to go. We don’t need to keep an eye on them,’” Sumner said. “But it’s like, that’s the reason the state has to keep an eye on them.”

“Because they supervise themselves. And we know, history shows us that supervising yourself isn’t really such a good idea especially in a male-majority organization that has had decades of sex-based offenses that are atrocious that people carry with them for the rest of their lives.” 

She agrees with Stevens’ concerns that the chief diversity officer position won’t work unless the adjutant general embraces it and understands that it will deliver value to the Guard if more women feel comfortable serving. But she said she doesn’t think the equal employment manager can fix the Guard’s culture issues on its own because it doesn’t have enough power to do so. 

Sumner, other National Guard survivors and supporters of the bill demonstrated outside Camp Johnson this past Sunday to show their support for the legislation. They held signs that read “Reject sexism” and “Gender diversity improves everything pass H.401.” 

O’Sullivan said she plans to reintroduce the chief diversity officer position bill next legislative session. She hopes that as more Guard members are brought in to testify in support of the position, it could sway some opinions. 

In reflecting on the murder of Army Spec. Vanessa Guillen, whose accused killer took his life as police closed in on him two weeks ago, O’Sullivan said Guillen represents thousands of women in the armed services who have experienced harassment and found themselves trapped within a culture that didn’t listen to their concerns. (The Army has not substantiated Guillen’s family’s accusations of sexual assault, but it did find that Guillen faced harassment of a different nature.) 

“They all get harassed,” O’Sullivan said. “I think the state of Vermont needs to say that we will not accept this.” 

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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