Whistleblowers: Workplace discrimination and retaliation plague Wyo National Guard

(Illustration by Eda Uzunlar)

Military leaders and state overseers allegedly fail victims of workplace hostility and evade accountability

By Tennessee Watson, Kamila Kudelska- Wyoming Public Media, and Jennifer Kocher- WyoFile

If the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s decisions and the testimony of multiple women are any indication, the Wyoming National Guard has a problem.

Over the last decade the EEOC — the federal authority charged with investigating employer discrimination — has put the Wyoming National Guard on notice three times for workplace hostility, including the mishandling of sexual harassment.

Whistleblowers say the documented complaints are only the tip of the iceberg and that rather than address the problem, the guard continues to find ways to delay or dodge the need to change.

In August, Rachel Bennett and Jennifer Rigg — two former guard employees —  spoke out about their experiences at state Capitol news conferences. For years, they both worked through official channels to address the workplace discrimination they say they faced, but after hitting dead end after dead end, they’re now calling on state leaders for help. They’re not alone in their concern that the guard is failing to protect victims of workplace hostility.

WyoFile and Wyoming Public Media interviewed more than half a dozen guard members and civilian employees of the Wyoming Military Department who spoke about a disturbing pattern. Women who reported being harassed, assaulted or discriminated against said they were met with excuses, suspicion, hostility and retaliation.

The Wyoming Military Department — which oversees the Air Guard and Army Guard — said through a spokeswoman it is making solid progress toward its goal of rooting out discrimination and assaults. The agency assured that every complaint received is taken seriously and those found to have merit are thoroughly investigated and properly dealt with. But former guard members and employees interviewed expressed disillusionment with this stated commitment and spoke of their deep sense of betrayal by an institution in which they had placed so much trust.

WyoFile and Wyoming Public Media found that despite multiple EEOC decisions indicating there’s a problem, military and state elected officials — including generals, governors and lawmakers — have done little to hold guard leadership accountable for failing to address rampant workplace hostility or to push for meaningful reforms. But that might be starting to change.

Amanda Dykes

Federal court records tell the story. Amanda Dykes did everything by the book when she was repeatedly harassed by her supervisor for nearly a year starting in 2010.

As commandant of the state’s Wyoming Youth Challenge Program (since renamed the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy), she was responsible for managing 27 employees providing educational and professional opportunities to nontraditional teenage learners at Fort Guernsey.

But her civilian job overseen by the Wyoming Military Department turned unbearable when in the fall of 2010, her supervisor, then-program director Don Smith, started sending emails about his marital problems, writing songs and poems about Dykes and telling her of his love for her. He would spend hours in her office talking about personal matters that made her so uncomfortable she began monitoring closed-circuit TV to try to make an escape whenever she saw him approaching.

The Wyoming Air National Guard military base in Cheyenne. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Dykes repeatedly rejected Smith’s advances and asked him to keep their relationship professional. Smith agreed to do so, in writing in a memo to his personnel file. Then he just continued pursuing her, according to court records.

Dykes made several complaints to human resources that went nowhere. At some point she learned from Smith that one of the employees she contacted for help was a personal friend of her harasser. She then made a complaint to Smith’s supervisor, Col. Shelly Campbell, who met with Smith to tell him to keep it professional. Campbell then suggested Dykes and Smith work out the problem between themselves, according to court records.

Campbell and human resources made no formal record of the complaints, conducted no investigation and took no action against Smith.

By September 2011, Smith’s behavior toward Dykes turned hostile and he deliberately undermined her in front of other staff members. In consultation with her husband, Dykes decided the only way to escape Smith’s serial harassment was to resign.

But Dykes didn’t just walk away. She filed a complaint with the EEOC. After an investigation, the matter was referred to the Department of Justice, which prosecuted the case in 2016.

Then-Wyoming Attorney General Peter K. Michael filed for a dismissal, but the case moved forward. In 2018, a federal judge found that Dykes’ resignation under duress amounted to a wrongful firing and awarded her $221,000 in back pay.

“Amanda Dykes was subjected to continuous harassment by her direct supervisor on the basis of her gender, and her complaints to those whose job it was to help fell on deaf ears,” wrote U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl. The Wyoming Military Department “is, and should be, embarrassed by the multiple failures.”

Following the judgment, then-Gov. Matt Mead told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle that it was a “stinging decision” and that the guard needed to “do a better job.”

Maj. Gen. Luke Reiner acknowledged in the same article that as adjutant general he had responsibility for all guard employees — civilian and military — but expressed confidence that the situation for sexual harassment and assault victims was improving under his watch.

He was summoned to a meeting with Mead— commander in chief of the Wyoming guard — but left with his job intact. Reiner retired from the military a few months later, but only after securing his appointment as director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation in the administration of newly elected Gov. Mark Gordon — a job Reiner holds to this day.

Smith, Dykes’ boss, was fired in 2012. However, Col. Campbell, who was Smith’s supervisor, retired with honors in 2019 and last September was awarded the Legion of Merit medal.

Dykes endured months of abuse and years of legal battles, but in the end she received monetary compensation. That’s something others have been denied.

Rachel Bennett

Not long after Amanda Dykes filed an EEOC complaint, so did Rachel Bennett. Nearly a decade later she’s still playing legal tug of war with the Wyoming guard. EEOC documents tell Bennett’s story.

Bennett alleges she was reprimanded — and ultimately fired by Reiner — from her civilian position in the Wyoming guard’s human resources office in Cheyenne for reporting sexual assaults of others.

(Illustration by Eda Uzunlar)

She also claims to have reported an adulterous relationship between a general and a married female colonel, a crime punishable in the military.

It wasn’t long before Bennett said she felt the blowback and was herself under investigation based on complaints allegedly submitted by two subordinates who claimed that, as a new mother, she created a hostile work environment governed by paranoia and frequent yelling.

“I was specifically told I was not able to be a new mother and a commander,” she told Cowboy State Daily in January.

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She was stripped of her command and fired in 2012. Bennett appealed her termination twice but Reiner upheld the decision. With no more options for appeal within the military system, Bennett’s only recourse was her EEOC complaint, which she believed she had the right to make as a dual-status technician.

Dual-status technicians straddle the line between military and civilian service — they are full-time civilian employees who maintain membership in the guard, wear a military uniform and follow military protocol.

Military members fall completely under the authority of military command, and therefore are not covered by the EEOC, nor do they have the right to bring a civil suit against their employer, the armed forces.

But dual-status technicians, like Bennett, fall partially under the purview of military command — where the adjutant general and the governor have final say — but also have access to the civilian judicial system, where employees are protected under federal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) law.

Regulators have ruled in Bennett’s favor three times in the dispute, including a 2019 appellate decision from a Denver administrative law judge who awarded her upwards of $600,000 in lost wages and legal fees.

The Wyoming Military Department, however, refuses to recognize the judgment or the EEOC’s authority in the case, arguing that Bennett, as a military officer, fell outside its jurisdiction.

Wyoming Military Department Public Affairs Director Alyssa Hinckley declined to comment on Bennett’s allegations, saying the agency considered the case closed in 2015 when the military determined her charges of discrimination were unfounded.

As Bennett’s appeal continues, the guard maintains the same position:  case closed. Col. Christopher Smith, the judge advocate general officer (since retired), submitted a document to the EEOC explaining that the Wyoming National Guard would not comply “based on the legal doctrine established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Feres v. United States.” The 70-year-old case prohibits enlisted members from pursuing civil litigation resulting in monetary compensation against the military for injuries considered incident to service. The EEOC responded in December 2020, upholding its ruling in Bennett’s favor.

Rachel Bennett stands in front of an old plane outside of Wyoming Army National Guard JFHQ, where she previously worked. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

The guard had to follow the federal court ruling in Amanda Dykes’ case because she was clearly a civilian employee. In Bennett’s case, however, the guard is using the Feres doctrine as a shield against taking responsibility for any wrongdoing. Smith argued in court documents the guard’s disregard of the decision is legally sound because Bennett’s complaint was filed before December 2016. That’s when the U.S. Congress clarified dual-status technicians’ right to an EEOC appeal.

Dwight Stirling, CEO of the Center for Law and Military Policy and a member of the California National Guard, called Smith’s mention of the 2016 law change “a classic red herring.” Stirling said, “it is meant to muddy the water with an irrelevant point,” and that, “dual-status technicians had the right to appeal to the EEOC for the type of misconduct at issue in [Bennett’s] situation previously. The law change did not impact this right one way or another.”

While the Wyoming National Guard and the EEOC volley Bennett’s case back and forth, complaints about workplace hostility continue.

Jennifer Rigg  

Jennifer Rigg comes from a proud military family with deep roots serving the country. She said her father, a physician’s assistant, “served in Vietnam and cared for soldiers in theater.” Her pride and appreciation for the men and women who serve in the military is why she’s speaking out, she said. “I took the same oath my airmen did to protect and defend.”

Rigg was employed as a civilian director of psychological health for the Wyoming Air Guard from 2014-2019.

Her job was to provide a listening ear and mental health and nonmedical counseling resources for airmen in a variety of circumstances — everything from marital problems to post-traumatic stress and suicide. Rigg said she also assisted members and employees in filing reports of sexual harassment, assault and discrimination, among other violations.

Many of the victims who came to see her said they felt discouraged from filing complaints. Like others interviewed by WyoFile and Wyoming Public Media, Rigg said the more she shined a light on these issues, the more her senior commanders tried to shut her down. She believes she put a target on her back when in 2018 she reported multiple cases of sexual harassment and discrimination that had been disclosed to her.

She said she was called “Chicken Little” and told to stop being so “overdramatic” and reporting every “minor issue.” She also noted that senior commanders downplayed assault numbers in their official reports. When she called them out, she said, she was no longer invited to attend quarterly sexual assault and response meetings.

In the end, though, it was Rigg’s own sexual assault that fully alienated her from the guard.

On a trip to California, she said, she went on a date with someone not affiliated with the Wyoming National Guard who tried to sexually assault her. She managed to get away, then immediately called the sexual assault response coordinator on base to report the incident and create a safety plan for getting home, following protocol, she said.

The coordinator didn’t answer her phone. When Rigg’s personal cell rang moments later, she picked up, figuring it was the coordinator returning her call. Instead it was an airman who she had been helping with an issue earlier that day. She asked if he would stay on the line with her until she made it back to her hotel safely.

Eventually, the sexual assault response coordinator did return her call and helped develop a safety plan.

But Rigg said she believed the coordinator also violated the law by talking about her case to other senior leaders. When she returned to the 153rd base in Cheyenne, she felt overwhelmed and asked for some time off. Then she said she was confronted by a vice wing commander and her command chief, who admonished her for involving an airman in the incident by talking to him about it on the phone as she returned to her hotel. They then repeatedly questioned whether she needed to go to the hospital for treatment following her assault. Rigg said they went on to question her ethics, faith, fatigue levels, alcohol use, as well as her judgment and decision-making.

“It was absolutely humiliating,” she said.

Jennifer Rigg at the Cheyenne Train Depot. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Rigg said she was placed on preventive health leave during which she was required to get a mental health evaluation, an alcohol assessment, receive guard-ordered counseling and develop a personal wellness plan. She was ordered to have daily check-ins with her first sergeant and to participate in a morning exercise regimen on base. She was also required to get a release from her doctor and a mental-health professional declaring her of sound mental health before returning to work.

When she was finally allowed to return to her job, she said she was restricted to administrative tasks and forbidden to have contact with any airmen, which meant turning off her phone and effectively cutting off the men and women who depended on her from the mental health resources she provided.

This was perhaps the harshest restriction of all for Rigg, who said she was then dealing with an epidemic of suicide attempts among airmen on base. By her count she was involved in preventing 62 suicide attempts.

The Department of Defense Annual Suicide Report later that fall identified suicide as a growing problem across all military branches but particularly within the guard. In 2018, the suicide rate was 30.6 per 100,000 personnel in the guard compared to 24.8 per 100,000 among active military and reserves. Among the U.S. population as a whole, the suicide rate in 2018 was 14.2.

From 2010 to 2021, the Wyoming guard recorded eight suicides, according to guard spokeswoman Hinckley.

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A command-directed investigation into Rigg’s phone call with the airman immediately following the attempted sexual assault on her ultimately led to her firing in 2019, she said.

Upon her termination, Rigg filed a complaint alleging senior commanders had illegally copied mental health files on her computer hard drive. The resulting investigation found her claims to be “unsubstantiated,” she said.

This is where she got firsthand insight into the tangled bureaucracy of the guard’s complaint process, which she claims was purposefully muddied and used against her.

Rigg said 1st Sgt. Charles Olivas, state equal employment manager for the guard, did not give her the proper guidance. Emails between Rigg and Olivas and a recording of a conversation the two had suggest he tried to provide her with the military, and not the correct civilian complaint form. A series of letters to Olivas from Rigg’s lawyer in October 2019 accused him of a deliberate attempt to mislead Rigg about the EEO process in order to have her matter dismissed.

Wyoming Military Department public affairs director Hinckley responded to a request for comment from Olivas regarding Rigg’s allegations. Hinckley wrote: “Ms. Rigg’s EEO complaint remains pending and in process. First Sergeant Olivas therefore cannot respond to your inquiry.”

Rigg finally sought the assistance of the EEO office at neighboring F. E. Warren Air Force Base, which helped her access the correct civilian form. Then she hired a lawyer to help file the claim.

On the day her EEO complaint was due, Rigg said she was called into work by her vice wing commander. As she drove on base, her car was stopped and searched, which she felt was done intentionally to intimidate her and to slow down her ability to file the complaint. On her next visit to the base to fill out her time card, Rigg said Vice Wing Commander Col. David Herder met her with security officers who read her Miranda rights and accused her of stealing federal property. Luckily, Rigg had the paperwork showing she’d already turned in her computer and the other equipment in question.

Rigg said she was told it was all a “simple misunderstanding.” When asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement following the incident, she said she declined.

“Nothing was as it appeared. The system is corrupt, and they just care about protecting their own reputations and will squash anyone who tries to fight back.”- Jennifer Rigg

In the end, Maj. General Greg Porter, Reiner’s successor as adjutant general, overturned Rigg’s firing, instead issuing a letter of reprimand in lieu of termination.

Rigg opted to transfer to a position in the Department of Veterans Affairs. She is currently on disability leave as a result of the toll her ongoing case continues to have on her mental and physical health.

Because Rigg’s case is still pending with the EEOC, the Wyoming Military Department will not comment on the case, though Hinckley said Rigg did have access to the forms she needed. When asked why the forms were not readily available for download on the state guard’s website, Hinckley said the department was in the process of changing the website and apps to make it as easy as possible for members to access documents and file complaints.

Rigg, who was a civilian employee, and who has the undisputed right to the EEOC complaint process, is still awaiting the outcome of her case because the Wyoming Military Department has yet to comply with a December 2020 directive for corrective action. 

What she sees as the abuse by senior leaders is the most devastating part of the experience for Rigg, who had taken pride in serving her country by helping men and women in uniform with mental health issues.

“The people in power we trusted to be honorable flatly weren’t as portrayed,” she said. “That’s by far the greatest disappointment. Nothing was as it appeared. The system is corrupt, and they just care about protecting their own reputations and will squash anyone who tries to fight back.”

The Wyoming Military Department denies any allegation that it does not take complaints seriously. In a statement to WyoFile, the organization said it has no tolerance for sexual assault or any form of sexual harassment or discrimination and does not believe in hiding these issues as that only erodes the trust needed for it to meet its mission for the state and nation.

“We address every incident reported within the guidance we are given,” Hinckley said.

All roads lead back to the state 

Marilyn Burden served in the Wyoming Air National Guard for 17 years, but in June 2018 she transferred to the Colorado Air Reserve to get away from what she described as the guard’s “toxic culture.”

Once a sincere believer in the guard’s leadership and core values, she is now disillusioned. “Their words and actions simply don’t match up,” said Burden, now a major in the Air Reserve.

“They’re lying to you,” she said in response to the Wyoming guard’s claim of taking workplace hostility and sexual harassment seriously.

Marilyn Burden at her home in Cheyenne. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Like others interviewed, Burden described a culture of retaliation and ostracization for any members — male or female — who challenged leaders.

Burden said her assignments in the guard put her in position to witness how those who voiced concerns were treated. She was assigned to Equal Opportunity for seven years, Sexual Assault Response for four years and Inspector General for three. Over the course of her guard career, she went from fielding concerns about discrimination and harassment to sexual assault to fraud, waste and abuse of power, and across the board Burden said the leadership’s response was “to deny, delay and deflect.”

She would brief and advise her commanders, she said, and “they’d go ‘OK, thank you,’ and I knew that nothing would happen. I knew leadership would not take action, and that they would do nothing. And that’s part of why I left.”

She described her frustration as “all of these people would come to me and I couldn’t help them. And I couldn’t fix it because people above me would do nothing.”

A particularly painful memory is one of Burden’s former clients who, she said, died by suicide after being raped and then subjected to retalition for reporting it.

She said she remotely counseled the woman for three years but wasn’t even notified of her death. She found out about it through another guard member. The victim’s hefty file, she said, had subsequently “gone missing.”

Burden filed an inspector general report to look into the incident but said it was ultimately dismissed by the state investigator.

“These complaints go nowhere,” she said. “All roads lead back to the state and the adjutant general who ultimately decides whether or not that complaint is worth investigating.”

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Even when issues are identified, no steps are taken to rectify the underlying problems, she said.

Despite Reiner’s promises of confronting discrimination, harassment and assault, nothing changed under his command and it still hasn’t, Burden said, which she detailed in a complaint to the Air Force Inspector General in 2018 that was ultimately dismissed.

The guard’s insular system of justice often leaves soldiers and civilian employees little recourse, she said, but to seek help elsewhere from legislators or the governor.

In 2018, Burden met with then-gubernatorial candidate Gordon and in a follow-up letter wrote how essential it is to listen to the voices of the men and women in the ranks who deserve to be heard. She pointed to issues of low recruitment and retention, high suicide rates, use of antidepressants and members seeking help.

“Military members have committed to serve in a manner that not many Americans will ever know or understand,” Burden wrote. “They deserve a chain of command that will listen to and address their concerns in a timely manner rather than a chain of command that is unethical, inappropriate or lacking moral behavior and condones these types of behaviors and allows them to continue.”

(Eda Uzunlar)

Gordon’s office told WyoFile that the governor takes all allegations involving the guard and its top leaders seriously.

Gordon expressed complete confidence in the leadership of Gen. Gregory Porter, whom he appointed in February 2019 to replace Reiner.

“The Governor is very committed and believes the current leadership of the Guard is as well, to ensuring the Guard is a place where equality is represented and is an organization that roots out discrimination,” the governor’s office said through its communications director, Michael Pearlman.

In response to complaints about a convoluted process that allows for retaliation by senior members against whistleblowers, Gordon said the guard has been instituting changes over the past decade to root out discrimination and create a responsive and unbiased system to handle allegations.

“There remain means for a person who feels discriminated against to seek outside assistance and review,” Pearlman said. “The Governor believes the Wyoming National Guard has, and will continue to consider necessary improvements to its policies. Central to the Governor’s belief that there is a system of checks and balances is that any person can seek an independent or outside review of their concerns or allegations of a crime.”

Gordon “believes strongly in the value of our National Guard and is committed to ensuring its readiness to meet the mission,” Pearlman added. “A key component of readiness is that the men and women who volunteer must have respect and support. They have his.”

As to persistent complaints of a “toxic” culture in the guard, Gordon indicated he’s open to listening to constructive criticism for improving the agency. But Gordon is not the only elected official with the power to instigate reforms.

While the governor is the commander in chief when the guard is under state authority, it’s the Wyoming Legislature that writes the state military code. In other words, state lawmakers make the rules for the guard, and can exercise oversight.

“This is the arrogance we frequently see by military officials who have become so confident in their Feres-based immunity that they operate like kings.”- DWIGHT STIRLING, CEO, CENTER FOR LAW AND MILITARY POLICY

State Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) has recently taken up the cause, hosting two news conferences in August where Bennett and Rigg shared their stories. “The guard — that’s under the purview of the state,” Bouchard said in an interview. “So what has to happen is legislation that holds them accountable.”

Porter, Wyoming’s adjutant general, addressed Bouchard’s news conferences in a video released in early September. He told the Wyoming Military Department: “We do not shy away from accountability. Nothing destroys trust, breaks teams or corrodes our warrior culture as do issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault. It cannot be covered up. It cannot be ignored.” He encouraged victims and witnesses to report “up to and including a direct call to my office.” (The video has since apparently been removed from the department website.)

What happens after the report is made, or the adjutant general gets the call, is Marilyn Burden’s question. She wants more than the guard’s word. She wants accountability.

Across the nation — from Wisconsin to Florida to Vermont — lawmakers are hearing from whistleblowers who say guard leadership sweeps harassment and discrimination complaints under the rug. But the guard usually flies under the radar, according to Retired Col. Don Christensen, who served as the Air Force’s chief prosecutor and is now the president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for ending sexual harassment and assault in the services.

Christensen said active-duty forces like the Army and Air Force get more attention when it comes to sexual misconduct in part because they’re under federal authority, whereas guard reform happens on a state-by-state basis.

(Illustration by Eda Uzunlar)

There are multiple bills before the U.S. Congress aimed at reforming the military’s handling of sexual harassment and assault. One is the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act of 2020, named for a 20-year old Fort Hood soldier murdered on April 22, 2020. In investigating her death, the Army found that Guillén had reported sexual harassment more than once by someone other than her alleged killer, but Army officials failed to report the harassment further up the chain. Sexual harassment is not currently a crime in the military under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Changing that, as proposed in the federal legislation, would have big implications for active duty forces.

Wyoming’s military code uses the UCMJ’s punitive articles, so if the bill passes in Washington, the Wyoming guard would also be able to prosecute sexual harassment as a crime.

That’s not the case for all states. Some legislatures have defined their own punitive articles for the guard to follow. Christensen said that’s part of what makes nationwide reform of the institution daunting, because it’s under the purview of 50 states, the District of Columbia and three territories.

“We hear a lot from guard members who are very frustrated because they’ve been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted and nothing’s happened,” said Christensen, “and state legislatures are the ones to address that.”

Dwight Stirling agrees.

As CEO of the Center for Law and Military Policy, he tracks reform efforts, and said what’s happening in Wyoming is a part of a larger problem that plagues state guards across the nation.

“It’s certainly not a good look to ignore a federal agency,” Stirling said, referring to the EEOC, “but this is the arrogance we frequently see by military officials who have become so confident in their Feres-based immunity that they operate like kings.”

As long as military members are barred by the Feres doctrine from pursuing civil litigation, Stirling said, “this is what you get when you place a section of government beyond the reach of judges.” And he characterized the Wyoming guard as bordering “on lawlessness, giving the appearance that the power of military officials cannot be checked.”

But Stirling said the Wyoming guard can be checked and the state Legislature could do so by amending the Wyoming Military Code to include a statute like this: “Service members in the Wyoming National Guard who are under the command of the Governor may file civil suits for injuries sustained incident to military duties.”

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Stirling said that would “nullify Feres for Wyoming National Guard service members and grant them access to the normal civil processes everyone else has, including EEOC complaints and judicial lawsuits.” The change would only apply when guard members are under state authority — or Title 32 — and not under federal authority, which they’re under a fraction of the time.

Lawmakers could create an additional avenue for accountability, he said, by ensuring that enlisted members and dual-status technicians like Bennett would have access to justice outside the military, as pursued by civilian employees such as Dykes and Rigg.

The Wyoming National Guard. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Expanding access to litigation is not all the Wyoming Legislature can do, nor is it the solution, said Stirling. Lawsuits consume time and resources for all parties.

In Vermont, public outcry about the guard’s ongoing mishandling of sexual harassment and sexual assault, led lawmakers to create the position of Provost Marshal, intended to ensure complaints are handled properly, and to coordinate with local law enforcement as well as federal agencies. The Vermont guard is also required to report annually to the state Legislature on cases of sexual misconduct.

Additional data reporting doesn’t automatically lead to accountability and improved practices. For that to happen the legislature must actively play a watchdog role, which has been a struggle in Vermont. “The Legislature didn’t always read the annual reports or take them too seriously,” Vermont Gov. Phill Scott told Seven Days. “I can say that’s true; I’m a former state senator.”

Several states including Wisconsin and Alaska have invited independent investigations by the National Guard Bureau (NGB), a federal agency that oversees state guard units but does not have the authority to enforce policy changes. In Wisconsin, the NGB investigation found the guard mishandled investigations of sexual harassment and assault, and did not address discrimination complaints, according to the report released in 2019. That information catalyzed a conversation in the Legislature about statute changes and increased accountability that has yet to be resolved.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are at least on the Wyoming Legislature’s radar. At the Joint Highway, Transportation and Military Committee meeting in August, guard Adj. Gen. Porter made brief remarks about sexual harassment and sexual assault. A slide presentation said: “Concern was expressed by members of the legislature about Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault in the Wyoming Military Department particularly over the last year.” At the behest of members, Porter promised to provide more detailed information at the committee’s next meeting in November.

Committee Co-chair Sen. Bill Landen (R-Riverton) said legislative concern grew out of an awareness of Bennett’s case.

“We considered adding a full-blown look at all of these types of issues in an interim study,” said Landen, but it didn’t make the cut for the 2021 interim session. “It was not a priority, because honestly, we had some other things in front of it, but it might very well end up as an interim study for next year.”

As for the meeting coming up in November, Landen said, “I know the committee will listen intently to any suggestions for proposed changes to the law.” In addition to the guard’s presentation, he’s expecting public comment from concerned citizens.

Burden said she wants the committee to consider legislation to ensure there’s an external review of the guard’s handling of complaints and investigations.

Landen said that’s not something the committee has drafted, but there’s plenty of time between the meeting in November and session “if we need to change the law.” Like Bouchard, Landen said the guard, “like any state agency, answers to the legislature when it comes to budget and policy.”

“And that’s exactly what we’re doing. Given the climate nationwide,” Landen said, referring to national conversations about sexual harassment and violence in the military, “that’s part of the reason to check in with our military department to see where we stand.”

Burden said her motivation in speaking out about workplace hostility is to help the guard be effective, whether that’s serving abroad or fighting wildfires and responding to COVID-19. “The No. 1 asset in the entire Department of Defense are the people, and people are hard [to manage]. There’s drama. There’s emotions. They’re all over the place. But guess what? Those nuclear warheads, those airplanes, those tanks, those naval aircraft carriers, those satellites in space, are going absolutely nowhere without the people.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.