Sexual assault and harassment accountability legislation receives support from Sisters in Arms Center, a Maine non-profit providing peer support and assistance to women veterans

From Maine Insights. April 2, 2022

Female Maine Army National Guard members say act now to address and prevent sexual trauma in the Guard with LD 2029

Rebecca Cornell du Houx, Sisters in Arms Center – Executive Director, Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Commissioned Officer MEARNG shows a bedroom for women veterans at the Sister in Arms Center in Augusta, Maine. Photo: Ramona du Houx

April 2, 2022

AUGUSTA – The Maine State Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs (VLA) Committee voted unanimously, on Wednesday, March 30, 2022 to advance a proposal to strengthen how the Maine National Guard prevents and responds to sexual assault and sexual harassment. The bill, LD 2029, was drafted by the committee following a briefing from the Maine Army National Guard (MEARNG) on the issue, as required by LD 625, a bill sponsored by Rep. Morgan Rielly of Westbrook.

The vote comes within a week of Governor Janet Mills signing an executive order to establish an Advisory Council that will strengthen the Maine National Guard’s response to sexual assault and harassment.

“Although this comes much to late for many survivors, the results of the investigations and the Advisory Council are important first steps to ensuring that our future sisters and brothers in arms do not have to endure the toxic culture of harassment and assault that’s been happening for decades,” said Rebecca Cornell du Houx, Sisters in Arms Center – Executive Director, Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Commissioned Officer MEARNG.

During the public hearing for LD 2029, An Act to Enhance the Prevention of and Response to Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the Maine National Guard, on March 25th, several service members who survived sexual trauma in the Maine National Guard testified in support of the bill.

Each survivor’s testimony was riveting, emotional and an act of courage.

“I enlisted into the Maine Army National Guard in 2003 at the age of seventeen. Since than I have never not known anything but being sexually harassed. I have become numb to it. I was always seen as the ‘easy going female,’ one to never complain or say anything when comments were made. I never reported it, because those that did were ‘blacklisted’ or not given the option of career advancement I simply bit my tongue and carried on. Those that were the “harassers” were higher enlisted males, ones that were seasoned in the organization. I have had unwanted sexual advances. I have had unwanted touching as well as non-consensual intercourse that went unreported because I didn’t think anyone would believe me,” testified Heather Warren, SFC, currently serving AGR MEARNG.

The public hearing showed that many present virtually were shocked as they processed the reality, while they heard about what goes on behind the scenes in the Maine National Guard without accountability. Collectively, the brave souls who testified made it clear that sexual assault and sexual harassment in the Maine National Guard must end and an inclusive culture of equality and equity must replace the old.

All those in the military who testified joined the Guard to serve and protect Maine and our nation, willing to put their lives on the line for all of us.

The Sisters in Arms Center in Augusta, Maine photo: Ramona du Houx

More public hearing testimony:

Caitlyn Denico was the youngest member to speak out at the age of 21. She was promoted today, April 1, to Sergeant (SGT). Denico was assaulted while on orders on the Southwest Boarder mission. In her victim statement to her perpetrator.

She stated, “The countless times I’ve stayed up replaying the memories from that night in my head are far more than it should be. My emotions go from angry to sad to guilty, and I feel these every day.”

SGT. Denico expressed exasperation by the inability of the Maine National Guard to serve and protect her and mentioned being anxious testifying again in front of the legislature.

“There were opportunities where leadership could have done something, and I wouldn’t have been assaulted,” she said.

She was thankful for the support received from the Sisters in Arms Center, a local non-profit that provides peer support and assistance to women veterans. “I am now staying at the Sisters in Arms Center until I return to college, and I am grateful for their support.”

Being forced to lose everything wasn’t fair and being forced to work with predatory men wasn’t fair, but the guard protects these predators. They shun the victims and they protect the abusers. Why is this still happening to people who just wanted to serve their country and have a fulfilling career? I made it 13 years before having to step away,” said Amie KennedyMaine National Guard former noncommissioned officer, and a local leather works business owner.

“Although it is difficult for me to testify, if it benefits the future so other women don’t have to go through this, then it’ll be worth it to me. I hope this makes a difference because nothing ever has before. We have never been listened to and harassment gets shoved under the rug and we are made to feel like something is wrong with us,” said Brittney Smith, Retired Sargent First Class, MEARNG.

“I am not here to tear the organization apart and tell you why it is a bad organization, and why no young women should join. I am here for the opposite reason. To criticize the organization of which I am a part of, am committed to, and want to see become better. I want to see a deep self-awareness of the issues that we inherently have, and from that self-awareness, growth. I am speaking today for the betterment of the organization, which I am so proud to be a part of and the country which I am proud to serve,” said Autumn London, SGT MEARNG.

“We are depending on the VLA committee to continue with oversight.  This problem goes deep into the Guard, we are only the survivors who are willing to share our stories, but countless have reached out to thank us for speaking out because they were too afraid too. I plan to continue advocating through an organization that helps women veterans. I am hopeful that this is the start to meaningful change,” said Aleigh Suffern, former SGT MEARNG, Masters in Human Development, Board President, Sisters in Arms Center.

“The culture in the MEARNG is toxic. It’s not right that my sisters can’t just serve their country without being assaulted and harassed by toxic leaders. The TAG (The Adjutant General) reached out me to talk after my testimony and I plan to collect information and suggestions from my sister survivors. I am doing this because I wasn’t able to speak up before, and it’s the least I can do for my future and current sisters in arms and my two little brothers who are serving in the MEARNG. I am now in the FLARNG (Florida Army National Guard) and I finally realized what an actual professional work environment was like.  While I worked for the MEARNG a bunch of us had to take anti-anxiety medications and sought counseling because of the toxic culture. It’s not right,” said Sarah Cayia, SFC Florida National Guard.

As amended, LD 2029 would require an annual report from the adjutant general to the members of the VLA Committee, and it would direct the attorney general to perform a review of allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by members of the guard against other members.

The measure would also add the crime of harassment to the Maine Code of Military Justice and add a member appointed by the governor to the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse.

LD 2029 would additionally require the adjutant general to provide current and former members of the Maine National Guard who survived sexual assault while in service with financial assistance to cover the expenses associated with attending judicial proceedings related to the assault.

“We are grateful for all the incredibly hard work and dedication of the VLA Committee. Sen Hickman, Rep. Riley and Rep. McCreight have spent hours reaching out and talking to survivors to ensure justice. It has been rewarding to witness our legislature listen to the voices of those who are willing to fight to continue the freedom of speech we are so fortunate to have in our country. Additionally, we are fortunate to have a National Guard General who is willing to listen to the stories of the survivors who have selflessly served our country. I consider it my honor to serve in the Guard,” said Rebecca Cornell du Houx, LCSW, Executive Director Sisters in Arms Center. “It is critically important that survivor’s voices continue to be heard on the Advisory Council, and in the upcoming investigations from the AG’s office and the NG Office of Complex Investigations. These actions represent the first hope that many of us have had that real change is going to happen.” 

 The Advisory Council is charged with making recommendations to the governor by December 1, 2022 about how the Maine National Guard can improve its response to sexual assault and sexual harassment within its ranks, with particular focus on coordinating state and local law enforcement and prosecutors and National Guard personnel as they respond to individual cases.

“My Administration, including the Maine National Guard, will not tolerate assault or harassment, and we are committed to taking immediate, responsive action to any reports brought to our attention, both to pursue accountability for the perpetrator and to provide justice and support for the survivor,” said Governor Mills, in a press release. “In establishing this Advisory Council, I am charging its members with recommending steps to ensure that the Guard is doing all it can to prevent sexual assault and harassment and all it can to support survivors and deliver justice and accountability.”

According the governor’s office the ten members of the Advisory Council, appointed by the governor, will include a wide range of stakeholders, including those directly impacted by sexual assault or harassment.

Maeghan Maloney, District Attorney of Kennebec and Somerset Counties, serves on the board of directors for the Sisters in Arms Center, and will be appointed to the governor’s Advisory Council. She provided expert testimony regarding the DA’s handling of criminal cases of sexual assault. Maloney plans to continue to work closely with survivors by providing legal education on sexual assault. Harassment and toxic workplace culture is not a crime; however, and is typically dealt with through agencies such as the Human Rights Commission, which the Maine National Guard does not typically utilize.

The full Maine State Legislature will vote on LD 2029 in the coming weeks.