Teresa James faced a colossal mission: evacuate 1,500 military workers while moving thousands of trucks and tents off an American air base in central Iraq.
Working under occasional enemy fire, James orchestrated the move in 45 days — a task commanders called “Herculean,” awarding her the Bronze Star in 2010.
It was just one of many accolades James received as an officer in the National Guard. Her performance reviews year after year had been stellar. One in 2001 called her “exceptionally exemplary.” Another said: “Promote now!”
But that all changed in 2012, when James reported being raped by a superior officer.
Suddenly her performance reviews went from glowing to subpar. One supervisor wrote that James had “communication difficulties” and “made some decisions which caused me to question her judgment.”
She was denied a promotion to colonel and reluctantly took an early medical retirement, ending her military career with the West Virginia National Guard.
“You go from hero to zero in a matter of hours after you report this thing,” James said.
Sexual assault in the military is nothing new, but the poor response by the National Guard — composed of militias from 50 states, three U.S. territories and the District of Columbia — stands out.
Guard units have buried sexual assault allegations, withheld crucial documents from victims and retaliated against women who have come forward, including denying them career advancement, an investigation by the Cap Times, in conjunction with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has found.
“The actual rape pales in comparison to what people live through,” said Christine Clayburg, who reported being assaulted in the California Air National Guard.
The Guard answers to the governor in each of its states but effectively polices itself. The bureaucracy is so impenetrable, the Cap Times/Journal Sentinel investigation found, that commanders can use it as a weapon against victims and whistleblowers.
Dwight Stirling, an attorney in the California National Guard who prosecutes sexual assault cases within the force and teaches law at the University of Southern California, says the Guard structure “is so convoluted and complex as to be practically incomprehensible” and a potential tool of retaliation.
“The governing rules,” he said, “can be adjusted to fit the circumstances” and have created a “culture resistant to change and uncomfortable with accountability.”
The problem has been particularly troubling in Wisconsin. A Cap Times investigation in 2019 revealed how the state Guard mishandled several sexual assault investigations, contributing to the subsequent resignation of the state’s longtime Guard leader, adjutant general Donald Dunbar.
The nation’s oldest military force, National Guard members have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and have been especially visible in recent months policing protests, testing citizens for COVID-19 and patrolling the U.S. Capitol. Unlike full-time members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, Guard members are primarily part-time, assigned to their home states.
The number of reported sexual assaults in the Guard jumped nationwide from 173 in 2009 to 607 in 2019 — more than a threefold increase. Beyond that, alarmingly little data exists. Even Guard officials are in the dark about the most basic information about sexual assault cases nationwide. Guard records show that the force does not know how many allegations are substantiated, how often soldiers are court-martialed and punished, and how often cases are referred to civilian police.
The Cap Times/Journal Sentinel investigation was based on interviews and documents obtained from victims. Reporters filed 108 public records requests across all Air and Army Guard branches nationwide; all were denied.
Some women who managed to obtain records of their cases told reporters that it took up to three years. By then, they said, it became extremely difficult to contest the findings.
The National Guard Bureau, a federal agency that oversees state Guard units but does not regulate them, has issued guidance that state Guards report all sexual assault allegations to local police and the national Guard office. But that doesn’t always occur. The Wisconsin Guard referred just 4 of 35, or 11%, of sexual assaults to police from 2009 to 2019, a National Guard Bureau report found.
And when state Guards do report sexual assault cases to the national bureau, authorities there investigate just a fraction of them — 110 out of 368 nationwide, or 30%, in 2019, according to the most recent Defense Department report on sexual assault in the military. The National Guard Bureau says it only investigates cases when civilian police decline to investigate or prosecute.
“I was very passionate about my job and very proud,” said Stephany Juzwiak, who quit the Guard over how it handled her sexual assault allegations and eventually went to police on her own. “Now I am absolutely ashamed to tell people that I served in the West Virginia Army National Guard.”
President Joe Biden has pledged to end military sexual assault, and his new Defense Department chief in January ordered a review of how the armed forces, including the National Guard, handle allegations. But there is no guarantee that individual states would make changes. In fact, the Guard has not made major changes in this area in nearly a decade.
In an emailed statement to the Cap Times/Journal Sentinel, National Guard Bureau spokeswoman Nahaku McFadden said the agency is pursuing several efforts to improve its response to sexual assault, including recently adding 17 investigators nationwide to primarily review sex assault complaints, bringing the total number to 36.
McFadden said the bureau does not have the power to regulate state Guards because the U.S. Constitution gives states authority over their units. But she said that the bureau does routine quality assurance checks on data that states report, though the Cap Times/Journal Sentinel found that the information, in some instances, is incomplete.
Regarding the Guard withholding documents from victims: She said women have access to investigative records through their military-appointed attorneys. But several victims interviewed by the Cap Times/Journal Sentinel dispute that.
In Wisconsin, new adjutant general Paul Knapp said improvements have been made in the past year. “We’ve developed processes to help ensure proper reporting, investigation, accountability, and support for survivors,” he said in a statement.
Victims, though, say meaningful change cannot occur without addressing troubling attitudes toward sexual assault.
At a Wisconsin sentencing hearing in 2019 for a male soldier charged with indecent conduct with a female colleague, Lt. Col. Scott Southworth, the soldiers’ commanding officer, didn’t mince words. “I think the world of (her), but I don’t believe her,” he said. “I don’t know anybody I served with that ever believed that there was any kind of assault.”
Had she been sexually assaulted, he said, “I would have expected she would have come after (the alleged perpetrator). She would have attacked him.”
A top officer faces retaliation
Teresa James signed up for the West Virginia Guard as a junior in high school, eventually reaching a position that few members of the Guard achieve: battalion commander, overseeing hundreds of soldiers. The Guard, she said, was “everything to me.”
Then, in 2006, James attended a military conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, with two superior officers, including a colonel who had previously made advances toward her.
One night after the group had gone to dinner, the colonel came to James’ room with beer and asked her to drink with him. James said she knew he had a reputation for erratic, angry behavior, and, in fact, a Guard investigative report would later state that the man was prone to violent outbursts at colleagues.
Alone in the hotel room with the colonel, James said she felt trapped and scared. He wouldn’t leave and started rubbing her shoulders. Then he raped her, she said.
Fearing retribution, she didn’t report the incident and continued her Guard career, which included being deployed to Iraq to lead the base closure mission.
Four years later, in 2010, James began to hear rumors that the colonel was sexually harassing other women in the unit. She reported the women’s allegations to the adjutant general, the Guard’s top commander, who initiated an internal investigation.
Eighteen months later, James went before the Guard’s retention board, which determines whether officers will be retained and can advance. Officers are typically retained for two years at a time.
With her outstanding reviews, James had always been retained for two years. This time she was told the Guard was retaining her for only one.
Then, two months later, in July 2012, she saw the results of the investigation: Seven other soldiers had reported the colonel sexually assaulting or harassing them.
James decided to report her own allegations against the colonel to the Department of the Army, which oversaw complaints from her Guard branch.
Several weeks later, in November 2012, she received her next performance evaluation. Her supervisor said her work was simply “satisfactory.”
“Consider for promotion if her performance improves,” her supervisor wrote.
She contested the review and wrote a rebuttal: “This comment is inaccurate and unjust as there is no record of any substandard performance or history of counseling indicating the necessity of improved performance.”
Four months after she reported her alleged assault, the National Guard Bureau substantiated her claims. Guard Bureau investigators found that the colonel “used intimidation and fear to sexually assault the victim resulting in nonconsensual intercourse.”
By this time, according to James’ medical records, she had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder from her combat experience and from what the Veterans Administration termed “military sexual trauma” from the incident with the colonel.
Later, in 2015, James learned that she was not selected for a promotion from lieutenant colonel to colonel. Worse, a military medical board determined she was no longer fit to serve because of her PTSD. Her negative performance review was part of what they considered in making their decision, according to medical records.
Meanwhile, she had filed a complaint with the Defense Department Inspector General Office, alleging that the West Virginia Guard retaliated against her for reporting that she was raped. The office took three years to conclude its investigation, finding James was indeed retaliated against by a high-ranking supervisor, according to its 2016 report.
She said it finally gave her some justice — “that somebody outside of the organization did say, ‘This happened. They did wrong.’”
The Defense Department report identified the supervisor as Brig. Gen. Charles Veit, at the time West Virginia Guard’s second in command. An Army Department spokesman said the department in 2017 gave Veit a written reprimand in the case.
He left the Guard later that year, West Virginia Guard spokeswoman Maj. Holli Nelson said. Veit declined to comment through the spokeswoman.
Neither the Defense Department report nor other records obtained by the Cap Times/Journal Sentinel identify the colonel who allegedly assaulted James, and so the news organizations are not naming him.
The Defense Department report recommended the Army remove James’ negative performance review from her personnel file and award her a military service medal the Guard had withheld. The Army complied.
James accepted a medical retirement from the Guard in 2019 at age 57. Major Nelson denied James was forced out and said her case has been used to make positive changes in how sexual assault in the Guard is addressed.
There were no criminal charges filed. Major Nelson said the Guard referred James’ sexual assault claims to police in Little Rock, where the alleged incident occurred.
One of the prosecuting attorneys who reviewed the case, John Johnson, said in an interview that his office did not file charges because there was no allegation of physical force, and by the time the alleged rape was reported and investigated, Arkansas’ statute of limitations for rape had expired.
The colonel, records show, retired in 2013 with full benefits: $4,182 per month.
‘The rage was unbelievable’
Christine Clayburg remembers the impulse vividly. Five years ago, while speeding down the Pacific Coast Highway outside of Malibu, her anger against the California National Guard mounting, she thought about careening off the road and onto the rocky cliffs below.
“The rage was unbelievable, uncontrollable,” she recalled.
The suicidal thoughts plagued Clayburg for months after reporting being raped by a colleague in 2015. She fought for help, she said, but found herself trapped in a bureaucratic maze that wore her down.
“The system failed her,” said Connie Hanson-Poulsen, a former Guard officer who helped handle Clayburg’s allegations. “She was not able to get the care she deserved.”
Before joining the Guard, Clayburg was a television meteorologist at WHDH in Boston then WCCO in Minneapolis. Then she made a career choice that surprised friends and family: She joined the National Guard. Coming from a military family, she had always wanted to fly.
In May 2008, two days before turning 35 — the age cutoff at the time — Clayburg enlisted with the Minnesota Guard.
She became a loadmaster for C-130 cargo planes. After taking a promotion with the California Air Guard, she was deployed overseas several times, including a combat tour in Iraq and Afghanistan. When not on Guard duty, she landed acting gigs, playing television reporters on six episodes of “Desperate Housewives” and once for “The Mindy Project.”
On an April morning in 2015, she said, she woke up in her colleague’s hotel room bed, terrified, and with no memory of how she got there. She said she last remembered sipping wine that her colleague poured for her at a gathering the night before.
She said she was hesitant to come forward, fearing retaliation from her command. Eventually, she reported the case so that, she said, she could receive mental health care to help her cope with the incident.
National Guard Bureau investigators found her allegations to be unsubstantiated, citing text messages that Clayburg sent to her colleague after the alleged assault. The bureau report said the messages were “consistent with two courting individuals.”
Clayburg disputes the investigators’ characterization of the texts, saying she remained in contact with her colleague because sheriff’s officials encouraged her to do so in hopes he would acknowledge the incident. A Ventura County Sheriff’s Office spokesman declined to comment but said detectives use a variety of methods to investigate criminal activity.
Civilian prosecutors declined the case, and because of that, the Cap Times and Journal Sentinel are not naming the accused.
Clayburg tried to transfer out of her unit so that she wouldn’t have to work with the alleged perpetrator. Records show the Guard denied her requests.
Her Veterans Administration-appointed psychologist at the time, Kathryn Davis, wrote to Clayburg’s unit and said the command response was retaliatory, noting that her patient’s psychological struggles were “clearly related to the incident that occurred while in the line of duty and to how the command has handled the situation.”
“The service member has shown good improvement,” she wrote. “Further progress would likely occur quickly if she could be reassured she would not have to work alongside of her perpetrator. However, the command has continually led her to believe she would have to work alongside of him. That is a vindictive and retaliatory stance to take with a victim of sexual assault.”
Clayburg continued to work while struggling to get consistent mental health care, according to correspondence between her and commanders. Thoughts of suicide escalated, she said. According to the emails, commanders told her the only way to get paid time-off to receive military medical care was to declare herself unfit for duty. A Guard medical officer, the emails show, told her that declaring herself unfit for duty would not end her flying career.
She reluctantly agreed. Later, she said, she discovered that decision, in fact, did disqualify her from flying and prevented her from doing her job. That effectively ended her Guard career. She was medically discharged in 2019.
The Veterans Administration determined the alleged sexual assault by her colleague was responsible for her post-traumatic stress disorder, VA records show. She was deemed to be 100% percent disabled and is now paid $3,146 monthly.
Clayburg, 47 years old and living in Minneapolis, says the incident — and the way the Guard handled it — irrevocably altered her life.
“Everything in your life that is bad, that ever happened to you is now a trigger,” she said. “Like I flew off the handle with a doctor at the VA about a dripping faucet, which at the time seemed perfectly logical. Like, ‘How could you be so uncaring to have this dripping faucet that no one else noticed?’”
Guard officials redefine sexual assault
Stephany Juzwiak said commanders buried her allegation — to the point of redefining the meaning of sexual assault.
Juzwiak said she was sexually assaulted on multiple occasions by a superior officer while serving in the West Virginia Guard. The pair weren’t friends, she said, but worked in the same Williamstown building and communicated occasionally about projects.
One day, she told the Cap Times/Journal Sentinel, “I had my legs crossed. I was sitting at my desk. He came in and forced his hand between my legs, and he was rubbing on my vagina, just going to town. I felt very low and disgusting.”
A Guard investigation, based on witness statements, concluded the colleague did in fact act inappropriately multiple times. According to the investigative records, witnesses reported that the man touched her inner-thigh, rubbed her groin, put her hand on his penis, asked her to sexually touch herself and on one occasion pinned her against a counter and rubbed up against her with a broomstick between his legs.
But records show that the investigation had a crucial flaw.
Once investigators determined that a sexual assault had occurred, the state Guard should have referred the case to the National Guard Bureau.
But in this instance, the West Virginia Guard, according to records, simply characterized Juzwiak’s sexual assault as “physical contact harassment,” a lesser offense that downplayed the original allegations and allowed the state Guard to maintain jurisdiction in the case.
Even the state investigator in the case had concerns: He wrote in a report that he had asked state commanders to send the case to the national office, but that didn’t happen.
Juzwiak said she also pressed West Virginia Guard officials to refer the case to the national office. But 14 months later there was still no action.
Fed up, she went to the local police. The Wood County prosecuting attorney charged the man in 2019 with two felony counts of first-degree sexual abuse, according to indictment records.
“Somebody finally listened to me,” Juzwiak said.
But the prosecutor dismissed the case in December. Records in the matter are sealed, and the prosecutor did not respond to questions from the Cap Times and Journal Sentinel about why the case was dropped. Juzwiak is now suing the man in state court.
She voluntarily left the Guard in 2019. “The day I discharged on Nov. 14, 2019 — it felt like a ton of bricks got lifted off of my chest. I felt like I could breathe,” said Juzwiak, now 31. “For the longest time I felt like a prisoner.”
Her alleged perpetrator submitted his resignation in 2018 in lieu of being terminated from the Guard, records show. The Cap Times and Journal Sentinel are not naming him because civilian prosecutors ultimately dropped the case.
Nelson, the West Virginia Guard spokeswoman, said in a statement that the Guard could not discuss Juzwiak’s case, but that her allegations are “not reflective of the commands’ actions and efforts in cases of sexual assault.”
“We have a duty to protect our force and want to ensure a safe environment for all to succeed and thrive,” Nelson said.
‘I am begging you’
When it was Lt. Col. Scott Southworth’s turn to testify in the Wisconsin sentencing hearing, he used strong words to back one of the men under his command.
The man had originally been charged with sexually assaulting a female Guard member, who was also under Southworth's command. Those charges were dropped, and the man was ultimately convicted of indecent conduct for having consensual sex with the woman.
Testifying in 2019 at Joint Force Headquarters in Madison, Southworth argued that he never believed the woman was assaulted. If she had been, he said, she would have fought back. The lieutenant colonel also argued for a light sentence for the male soldier, saying the man had already suffered from the sexual assault allegation, including not being promoted.
“The other issue is really a dignity issue,” he said. “He certainly paid a price from the standpoint of how people view him in the National Guard.”
He added: “How many pounds of flesh can we take from an individual before enough is enough?”
When asked how the case affected the personal life of the woman, Southworth responded: “I don’t care. That’s not my role. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I don’t care.
“That part is not my issue, how it impacts someone’s personal life,” he testified. “I’m concerned about everybody being treated equally in the military.”
As for the effect on her military career?
“My understanding is that she left the military shortly after the incident, and there has been no impact on her,” Southworth said.
But court records and the woman tell a different story.
The case began in 2015 at a Wisconsin National Guard holiday party, where many members were drinking. Afterward, as soldiers slept on the floor of the barracks, the male soldier sexually assaulted the woman by placing his finger and tongue in her vaginal area and groping her, according to the initial charge sheet in the case.
Two soldiers in the room said they heard the woman say “no” several times, according to their sworn statements obtained by the Cap Times/Journal Sentinel. They later testified that they thought that she was saying no “playfully.” Both the woman and man later testified that they were drunk at the time.
The policy of the Cap Times and Journal Sentinel is not to identify sexual assault victims without their consent. The news organizations are also not naming the man because doing so might identify the woman.
The Guard initially charged the man with four sexual assault violations of the state’s military code. But a Guard officer overseeing the case recommended that it not advance to a court martial, citing a lack of evidence behind some of the charges.
The assault charges were subsequently dismissed, and a Guard prosecutor brought a lesser one against the male soldier in the case: indecent conduct for having consensual sex with a married woman. Adultery is considered a crime in the military; the woman did not re-enlist and was not charged.
The prosecutor, Kasey Deiss, did not respond to emailed questions from the Cap Times/Journal Sentinel.
At the sentencing hearing, Deiss argued for jail time, while the male soldier said repeated delays in the four-year case were punishing: “It’s a horrible feeling to have hanging over you for years.”
The woman declined to appear before the court, but her attorney, Capt. John Ford, read a statement she had written.
“I have reluctantly agreed to support this plea deal because I need to move on with my life, and the tortuous military justice process has dragged on and on, re-victimizing me every single day,” the statement said. “I am begging you to hold him accountable for the choices that he made.”
After deliberating for 90 minutes, military judge Lt. Col. David Klauser sentenced the man to 15 days in jail.
But the time was never served. Knapp, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, reviewed the case and “considered post-trial matters including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and determined that no confinement would be imposed,” Guard spokesman Joe Trovato said.
When reached by the Cap Times/Journal Sentinel, Southworth defended his testimony that he did not care how the case affected the woman’s personal life.
“As a military officer, my primary concern is the good order and discipline of the unit to accomplish our missions. When soldiers make inappropriate choices (as happened here between these two (non-commissioned officers)), I cannot concern myself with the effects those choices have on their personal lives,” he wrote in an email.
Southworth’s website says he is a criminal defense attorney in Wisconsin Dells. When asked about his testimony that he would expect a woman being sexually assaulted to fight back, he did not respond.
An investigator with the National Guard Bureau later called the case a “train wreck,” according to an audio interview between investigators and the woman, a copy of which was obtained by the Cap Times. The investigator told the woman the Wisconsin Guard had failed to follow proper protocols but did not provide details. Requests by the Cap Times for records in the case were denied.
Federal Guard investigators were reviewing the case in 2019 as a part of a broader look at sexual misconduct in the Wisconsin Guard. That report found the state Guard mishandled investigations in dozens of cases.
The male soldier has since been discharged; Trovato said he could not disclose whether it was an honorable discharge, but that the man is not allowed to receive military retirement benefits.
Meanwhile, the woman has left the Guard. When reached by reporters, she declined to be interviewed.
In her court statement, she described her loss.
“It changed me as a person, it halted major life events, and it has crippled me emotionally,” she said. “Every part of my life has been disturbed. I am no longer the professional, hard-working go-getter that I once was. I don’t recognize myself anymore, and all these things that I worked so hard for are gone now.”
Katelyn Ferral, investigative reporter for the Cap Times, examined sexual assault in the National Guard while she was an O’Brien Fellow for Public Service Journalism at Marquette University in 2019-20. Ferral broadened her investigation nationally during the fellowship after reporting on sexual abuse in the Wisconsin National Guard in early 2019.
She worked with Marquette students Natallie St. Onge, Sophie Bolich and Sydney Czyzon who contributed research to the project. This story is being co-published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is a partner in the effort. Marquette University and administrators of the program played no role in the reporting, editing or presentation of this project.