Lawmakers are set to consider a package of legislation that would tighten prohibitions on sexual assault within the Wisconsin National Guard after a scathing federal report found commanders had for years been flouting federal requirements for handling complaints.
A study committee made up of legislators, district attorneys and military veterans began working on legislation last summer to tighten oversight of sexual assault complaints within the Wisconsin National Guard. The state Assembly’s military affairs committee was set to start the process toward floor votes with a public hearing on the bills.
The proposals come after the National Guard Bureau in Washington DC released a blistering report in December 2019 that found Wisconsin National Guard commanders between 2009 and 2019 improperly kept sexual assault complaints to themselves rather than passing them along to the national bureau for investigation. The Wisconsin National Guard’s commander, Major General Donald Dunbar, resigned just as the report was released.
Sexual misconduct has been a long-standing problem within the U.S. military. The Department of Defense received 8,942 reports of sexual assault in fiscal year 2022, up about 0.8% from the 8,866 reports it received in 2021 and 14% from the 7,816 reports tracked in 2020, according to the department’s reports tracking sexual assault.
Dunbar’s resignation was the culmination of a monthslong investigation into sexual assaults within the Wisconsin National Guard.
The probe began after U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin received complaints in 2018 from Wisconsin Air National Guard Master Sgt. Jay Ellis about high-ranking officers doing little to address sexual harassment and assault complaints within the 115th Fighter Wing’s security squadron dating back to 2002.
Senator Baldwin asked the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations to look into Ellis’ allegations. The National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations ultimately agreed to look into the matter. The office released its findings in December 2019.
The report found that commanders launched internal investigations rather than refer complaints to local police and the national bureau, as required by Defense Department regulations. They also used poorly trained investigators who sometimes falsely presented themselves as bureau investigators, failed to track complaints or enter them in a Defense Department database and did not note substantiated sexual offenses in offenders’ evaluation records, according to the report.
Dunbar resigned at Governor Tony Evers’ request hours before the report was released to the media.
Wisconsin law allows the Legislature’s attorneys to establish committees in even-numbered years to study pressing issues and recommend legislation. Prompted by media coverage of Dunbar’s resignation, they formed a committee in July 2022 to study sexual misconduct in the Wisconsin National Guard. Members included legislators from both parties, district attorneys from Ozaukee and Clark counties and military veterans.
The legislation the study committee developed would clarify that civilian authorities have primary jurisdiction to prosecute sexual assault, sexual misconduct and other crimes committed by Wisconsin National Guard members.
It also would adopt provisions from the Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibiting officers and recruiters from engaging in prohibited sexual activity with soldiers they’re training or applicants for military service. Consent would not be a viable legal defense.
Sexual harassment and retaliation against complainants would be prohibited. The Guard would have to publish a policy online that ensures victims are treated with respect and dignity.
Commanders would have to submit annual reports to the governor and Legislature detailing the number of sexual assault and misconduct cases within the Wisconsin National Guard over the preceding year. They also would be required to build a database to track misconduct cases.
Ellis said that he has retired from the military and moved to Texas. He said that some of his fellow veterans from his unit still refuse to speak to him and he is trying to put the entire experience behind him. He said the new bills look like “well-meaning change” but “implementing will be the real test.”