Sexual assault and sexual harassment have no place in the Wisconsin National Guard.
That’s the message Soldiers and Airmen in the organization receive throughout the year, but April marks Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, a month in which the organization pauses to bring special focus to the topic and the vast resources and programming the Guard has in place to assist victims, educate service members and hold perpetrators accountable.
Every Soldier and Airman receives annual refresher training on the topic of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which includes topics ranging from the definition of consent and harassment and appropriate workplace conduct to restricted and unrestricted reporting procedures.
According to senior Wisconsin National Guard leaders, the goal of the organization’s sexual assault response and prevention program over the past decade, has been to foster a climate that encourages reporting and in which victims of sexual assault and harassment feel comfortable coming forward.
The Wisconsin National Guard has full-time sexual assault response coordinators (SARC) who manage the organization’s program and receive reports from sexual assault victims serving in the organization. The SARC takes reports from any member of the organization, whether the alleged assault occurred in a military setting between two members of the National Guard or whether the assault occurred in a service member’s civilian life on a college campus, at a bar, at their civilian work place or elsewhere in their private life, or even years before they entered the military. The vast majority of reports the SARC office receives stem from service members reporting an incident that occurred outside the military, but the primary goal remains the same – connecting victims with the care, support, and resources they need.
“We’ve worked very hard over the years to ensure sexual assault victims serving in our organization feel comfortable coming forward,” said Robert Brania, the Wisconsin National Guard SARC. “In many cases, we’re the only organization in the lives of our Soldiers and Airmen that is talking about this issue with them, taking it seriously and connecting them with support and resources. We have service members coming from all walks of life, and many unfortunately experience sexual assault at their college campuses or even prior to joining the Guard, but they feel comfortable coming to us and trusting us to help them deal with the aftermath.”
Soldiers and Airmen have two avenues by which to report sexual assault – restricted or unrestricted. Under a restricted report, victims confidentially disclose an assault allegation to a specially trained unit victim advocate, but law enforcement is not notified and no investigation is initiated. The report remains confidential at all levels of the organization, and the victim’s commander is not made aware, but the organization provides the victim access to the counseling, mental, and physical health support they need.
Under an unrestricted report, victims disclose that an assault occurred without the same confidentiality. All unrestricted reports are referred to local law enforcement or the Wisconsin Department of Justice for investigation and potential prosecution. If the alleged perpetrator is a member of the Wisconsin National Guard, the organization can then take disciplinary or administrative action based on the outcome of a law enforcement investigation. In the event that local law enforcement unsubstantiates or chooses not to prosecute a sexual assault allegation, the Wisconsin National Guard can conduct an administrative investigation and pursue other forms of disciplinary action, if warranted.
Eliminating sexual assault and harassment from the Wisconsin National Guard has long been one of the organization’s top priorities. Sexual assault and harassment can have a detrimental impact on unit morale, cohesion and ultimately readiness. Harassment and assault is also contrary to the Warrior Ethos and the military’s values, senior leaders said. With a no-fail dual mission as both Wisconsin’s first military responder and a key component as the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force, there is no room for it in the Wisconsin National Guard. As a result, the organization has consistently sought new tools and procedures to combat the issue.
In 2013, the Wisconsin National Guard became the first National Guard in the nation to create a team of legal advisors, known as special victim’s counsel, to represent victims of sexual assault through the investigation and prosecution phases.
In 2015, the organization worked proactively with the Wisconsin State Legislature to update the Wisconsin Code of Military Justice’s definition of sexual assault, which included an enhanced sexual assault punitive article, making Wisconsin the first state to do so.
Most recently in late 2018, the Wisconsin National Guard signed a memorandum of agreement with the Wisconsin Department of Justice to provide another avenue by which the Wisconsin National Guard can pursue cases of sexual assault if or when local law enforcement declines to prosecute or investigate, or if a victim does not want to work with local law enforcement.
The SARC became a full-time position in the Wisconsin National Guard in 2008, and by 2013, the organization hired a second full-time employee – a victim advocate – to the office. Today, there are more than 50 trained victim advocates serving at every level across the organization. The victim advocates are all trained and accredited by the National Organization for Victim Assistance, which is an independent third party to the Department of Defense.
The Guard also has trained equal opportunity representatives at every unit that help leaders manage any allegations of sexual harassment within the organization.
“This is one of our organization’s top priorities,” Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, said. “Sexual assault is a crime, and we will not look the other way. We seek nothing less than the elimination of sexual assault and harassment from our ranks. Our primary concern is ensuring sexual assault victims serving in this organization have the support, care and resources they need. But we will also offenders accountable consistent with the law, because assault and harassment are contrary to our core values.”
The Wisconsin National Guard is planning a series of observances over the course of April to shed light and increase awareness on the topic of sexual assault and harassment.