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No action from Wisconsin lawmakers more than a year after National Guard sex assault scandal

No action from Wisconsin lawmakers more than a year after National Guard sex assault scandal

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The Wisconsin National Guard Armory, pictured on Tuesday, September 22, 2020.

Following a year of historic National Guard activity in Wisconsin, and despite a 2019 federal investigation calling for reforms, state legislators have done nothing to change the law on how the force handles sexual assault and addresses discrimination.

The Guard, along with Gov. Tony Evers, say they support reforms to the state’s military law, called the Wisconsin Code of Military Justice, to align it with national standards for addressing sexual assault, victims rights and discrimination and other crimes within the force. 

“Gov. Evers continues to urge the Legislature to improve the Wisconsin Code of Military Justice as the National Guard Bureau recommended to protect our servicemembers and survivors and prevent sexual harassment and assault in the Guard,” said Evers spokesman Britt Cudaback in an email. 

‘Hero to Zero’: The National Guard welcomes and promotes women. That is, until they report a sexual assault.

Captain Joe Trovato, the Guard’s spokesman, said the Wisconsin Guard has had some preliminary discussions with lawmakers to update the code but had no details on specific changes or a timeline for them. 

“We remain committed to working with both the governor’s office and the legislature to seek updates to the WCMJ,” he said in an email. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LaMahieu, R-Oostburg, have not commented publicly on the issue and did not respond to emailed questions about whether they support reforms. 

Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason, also did not respond to emailed questions about whether she supports reforms. 

Congress tackles military sexual assault, but again ignores problems within the National Guard

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said he expects lawmakers will look at reform this year. 

“The legislature should do everything in its power to protect Wisconsin National Guard members as they serve our state,” he said in a statement. 

The need for changes to Wisconsin’s military law arose after a 2019 report by the National Guard Bureau, a federal administrative agency that oversees the Guard, found that the state for years botched investigations of sexual assault and harassment. 

The Wisconsin Guard failed to report data on sexual assaults to the Department of Defense, did not address discrimination complaints and had not reported sexual assault cases to civilian police, in violation of state and federal law, according to the report. 

Those findings resulted in the resignation of former Guard commander, Donald Dunbar. Federal investigators also recommended that the state aligns its military code to what is used in full-time active duty forces, called the Uniform Code of Military Justice. 

Sexual assault was not listed as a crime in Wisconsin’s military code until 2014, the last time it was updated. The state has also not updated its code to extend federal discrimination protections to civilian Guard employees.  

A maze leading nowhere: National Guard's convoluted records system hinders justice for sexual assault survivors

A Cap Times/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation published earlier this month revealed especially troubling problems in the National Guard across the country, including burying sexual assault allegations, withholding documents from victims and retaliating against those who come forward. Last year, the National Guard nationwide had a record number of sexual assault reports, a number that has increased steadily since 2011.

Justice for those who experience sexual assault when serving their home states with the National Guard is often uneven or nonexistent in part because each state Guard has different laws for dealing with the crime. Some states’ military codes are outdated, do not list sexual assault as a crime or have no military code of justice at all. 

In Wisconsin, sexual assault reports increased by 30 percent in 2020, Adjutant General Paul Knapp said Thursday in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio. Since Knapp took command in 2020, the Guard says it has made several changes to how it handles sexual assault cases and has implemented other federal recommendations for improving its response and prevention efforts. 

“Dealing with sexual assault in the National Guard has never taken a back seat to any of the other efforts in the last year,” Knapp said in a WPR interview last week. “My number one priority is to create an environment where anyone in the organization regardless of status feels safe and protected coming forward.” 

 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.

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