Many Wyoming leaders love to tout the Code of the West, a 10-statement code of ethics they believe everyone should live by.
Too bad some aren’t following it themselves.
Let’s start with the first one: “Live each day with courage.” If Wyoming National Guard leaders were truly following that code, they wouldn’t have buried complaints of workplace sexual discrimination, harassment and assault from women in various roles throughout recent years.
And what about #4? “Do what has to be done.” We believe that means taking decisive, ethically appropriate action, even if it doesn’t make you look good. Yet, as reported recently by three Wyoming journalists at WyoFile.com, multiple women say Guard leaders have offered nothing but empty promises to investigate and properly deal with these problems.
What they do instead, of course, is continue to protect the “good ‘ol boys” network by ignoring the issues or, worse yet, failing to follow federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws. In fact, in the case of Rachel Bennett, who says she was reprimanded and later fired for reporting sexual assaults against other women, Wyoming Guard officials have opted to ignore three rulings in her favor, including a 2019 appellate decision from a Denver administrative law judge, who awarded her upwards of $600,000 in lost wages and legal fees.
Instead, they’re using a 70-year-old case, Feres v. United States, to declare she has no standing to make a monetary claim because she is an enlisted Guard member, even though, in fact, she is a dual-status technician, meaning she is both military and civilian. So instead of “doing what has to be done,” they just say “case closed,” turn their backs and walk away.
Other women say they have had similar experiences, with Guard leaders ignoring them or firing them for making similar reports. Others have resigned out of complete frustration with their inability to resolve the issue.
Take Jennifer Rigg, for example. As recounted by the journalists in the WyoFile investigation, Ms. Rigg was the civilian director of psychological health for the Wyoming Air National Guard from 2014-19. It was her job to listen to airmen dealing with a variety of problems, ranging from marital trouble to post-traumatic stress to suicide. She also helped Guard members report cases of sexual harassment, assault and discrimination.
Yet, when she reported multiple cases of sexual harassment and discrimination that had been reported to her in 2018, she said she was called “Chicken Little” and told to stop reporting every “minor issue.” When she called out senior commanders for downplaying assault numbers in their official reports, she was no longer invited to attend quarterly sexual assault and response meetings.
After her own experience with an attempted sexual assault was mishandled, Ms. Rigg was forced to go through a variety of hoops in order to return to work. Even then, she said she was restricted to administrative tasks and forbidden to have contact with any airmen, which meant turning off her cellphone and cutting off contact with the men and women who needed the resources she provided.
All of this took place at a time when suicide was a growing problem in all branches of the military, but especially within the Guard. Yet military leaders told the public they took the problem seriously and were doing all they could to address it.
Which brings us to Code of the West #6: “When you make a promise, keep it.” Can anyone who was in Guard leadership at that time look themselves in the mirror and honestly say they were keeping that promise to their fellow airmen and soldiers?
So what now? Gov. Mark Gordon, the Wyoming National Guard’s commander-in-chief, said he takes all allegations involving the Guard and its top leaders seriously. He also said he has complete confidence in the leadership of current Adjutant General Greg Porter, who he appointed in February 2019.
But a video recorded by Gen. Porter in early September that addressed these complaints – brought forth by state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, during two news conferences a month earlier – has since been removed from the Wyoming Military Department’s website. The WyoFile story reports Gen. Porter as saying in the video “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.” If that’s true, why take down the video? And why isn’t Gen. Porter holding his own news conference to address the issue head-on, rather than recording a video and quietly posting it online?
If the governor and Gen. Porter are serious about getting to the bottom of this issue, they need to take decisive, public action. Gov. Gordon should appoint an independent investigator or ask the National Guard Bureau to conduct an investigation into how these and other complaints have been handled within the Wyoming Guard bureaucracy. Gen. Porter should do all he can to support this effort, including ending the fight against Ms. Bennett and paying her what she’s due.
The Wyoming Legislature also has a role to play. According to the nearly 5,300-word article, since lawmakers write the state’s military code, they have the authority to exercise oversight of the Guard’s compliance – or lack thereof – with those rules. The good news is sexual harassment and sexual assault are at least on their radar. Gen. Porter made brief remarks during an August meeting of the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee, and has promised to provide more detailed information at the committee’s next meeting in November.
But committee co-chair Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said he and others were aware of Ms. Bennett’s case, but it wasn’t important enough to become an interim topic this year. Maybe next year, he said.
If they can make time for a special session to address President Joe Biden’s national COVID-19 vaccine mandate, they can surely squeeze in some time to protect their own Guard members, can’t they?
Which brings us to the 10th and final statement in the Code of the West: “Know where to draw the line.” Women should never have to suffer through sexual assault, harassment or discrimination, no matter where they work. But to have it repeatedly ignored by leaders of any organization is shameful. It’s time for Wyoming’s elected officials and top National Guard leaders to “cowboy up,” say “enough is enough” and do everything in their power to change the Guard’s broken culture.