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'Eyes Wide Open:' Adjutant General Gregory Knight Reacts To New Investigation Into Vermont National Guard

Air Guard Flying hangar with a small red and white plane in front of it.
Toby Talbot
/
Associated Press File
A plane taxis past the Vermont Air National Guard hangar at the Burlington International Airport in South Burlington, Vt. A new report issued this week detailed shortcomings in the Vermont National Guard's culture.

A pervasive “good old boys” network, mismanagement of reports of sexual assaults, equal opportunity programs not in compliance with federal policies: those are some of the significant issues found in an investigation of the Vermont National Guard released this week.

The review was conducted by the National Guard Bureau's Office of Complex Investigations. It was ordered by Adjutant General Gregory Knight a few months after he was named to the leadership post in 2019. And it followed a 2018 investigation by VT Digger that found a toxic culture for many women within the guard.

The new report makes 35 recommendations, which the guard is not required to implement.

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with Maj. Gen. Gregory Knight, the Adjutant General of the Vermont National Guard, about the new report and policy recommendations. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So, you requested this report in late 2019, as I said, after reporting by VTDigger documented allegations that some female members of the guard experienced harassment, and preferential treatment was routinely given to male guardsmen. What were you hoping for in asking for this assessment?

Maj. Gen. Gregory Knight: Well, the assessment to me was important. I made a commitment in campaigning for this job and becoming the adjutant general, to improve the organization. I don't need a whole lot of folks to tell us what we're doing right — this remains a very high performing organization, as evidenced by what you've seen in the past year-and-a-half, you know: response to COVID and doing all of the great things that this organization has done while concurrently preparing for and deploying in support of our federal mission.

More from Vermont Edition: Deployment During A Pandemic, Sexual Misconduct: A Conversation With The Vermont National Guard

But that being said, I went into it eyes wide open. It's a great resource for us. And I knew going into it, in discussions with National Guard Bureau, that it would be released to the public. And that's inclusive of obviously the governor, the Legislature, the congressional delegation. I think it's important to share.

Well, I want to go through some of the major issues that investigators found. First: on sexual assault, the report found the guard had some better data collection and reporting in the year since 2017, but it's still identified some serious deficits in that regard.

What are you going to change in this process to ensure that those who report sexual harassment or assault can feel confident that those reports will be handled correctly, and if someone's found responsible, that they will face appropriate discipline?

We've already done a couple of things, Henry. One, that's really the easier portion of the assessment for us to work through as we kind of triage the findings and recommendations.

And just so you know, I shared this with the other 53 states, territories and Washington, D.C. — my counterparts there. That's a two-way street: They can derive benefit from our efforts here, because this is not just a Vermont problem. On the other side of that, of course, I've already received emails from other adjutants general, saying, "Hey, here's, here's what we're doing." And it's really sharing of best practices.

"The bigger challenge is reinforcing the sexual assault response coordinator position. She's just got too much to do."
Maj. Gen. Gregory Knight

But so, what specifically are you changing in the reporting and the follow up process for those that bring reports of sexual harassment to leadership in the guard?

What we're doing here to get at that is going back to a revised professional education program.

It's not just professional military education. It’s actually giving our members, in particular our leaders and junior leaders, the tools and education they need to become better informed and be better leaders.

And part of that is going to be an education program on how we respond to sexual harassment and sexual assault, and most importantly, what their obligations are to address that. That's something that I think we were deficient in, obviously. That's what the assessment found.

The bigger challenge is reinforcing the sexual assault response coordinator position. She's just got too much to do. Her role is not just response, but she also has to handle that education piece.

I've been asked by the chief of National Guard Bureau to be on a general officer steering committee at the national level, working with the National Guard Bureau staff and several other adjutants general, on completely revising the National Guard's approach to preventing and addressing sexual harassment and sexual assault. And one of the recommendations that they provided was to have a violence prevention integrator, a prevention specialist. The active duty Air Force has that; the guard does not. So that's one of the recommendations that we're pursuing pretty aggressively right now. And that's part of that education piece I was mentioning.

More from Vermont Edition: Former National Guard Member: To End Sexual Misconduct, Culture Must Change

So, am I hearing you right, that you plan to hire additional people that will help both educate and handle cases of sexual assault?

That's correct. And it'll take time. Anything that requires personnel resources and funding is going to take some time.

One thing that many Guard members told investigators is that there is a “good old boys club” in the Vermont guard, which makes some members feel bullied, some feel like they can't speak out about problems that they see within the guard. Do you agree that there is a “good old boys club” in the Vermont National Guard?

I don't know that I agree yet. But that, again, is a conversation that we're going to have — senior leaders, I expect that candid and professional conversation. And again, [I] have the luxury of a small state, I plan to go out and meet with the members of the Air and Army National Guard, and have these open and candid discussions.

And you know, there's some things that folks don't understand about the guard, there are so many mechanisms where folks have a right of redress. They can use the inspector general, they can certainly use a state equal employment manager, equal opportunity officers at the unit level.

And we also have recently, probably the past two or three months, we launched an Air and Army National Guard app – the Air’s actually had it longer than the Army has. But on that app there is a reach up feature. And folks who have a grievance or an issue that they want to be addressed, can report that via the app anonymously. And that will go to the state equal appointment manager, sexual assault response coordinator, the public affairs office or direct to me.

"My job is to make sure that I continue that trend, give [junior leaders] the education and tools to make their subordinate units even better than they are now."
Maj. Gen. Gregory Knight

But in terms of the perception that there is a network of people within the guard, that is exclusive to others that may be keeping certain people within the guard from advancing: I mean, how do you address the feeling that a lot of guard members reported, that there is this network that is exclusive?

Well, that's the challenge of the job, isn't it, Henry? I have to deal less with feelings and more with fact. And what I need is folks to come forward. If there's something that can help me make the organization better, let's have that conversation. And it's a hard conversation to have. I understand how difficult it is to come forward. And there's fear of retribution and retaliation.

But again, my job is to mitigate that. And I think it's validating for me that the number of folks that we had participate in the survey and in the interviews, speaks volumes about their willingness to have the conversation. And that's what we're going to do.

You promised upon taking this position that you would improve the guard’s, culture and also issues of retention. How do you go about changing the culture of the guard? And do you still feel like that's necessary?

So, here's my perspective on this, and I actually got this from my sexual assault response coordinator, I thought her perspective was pretty interesting.

I change the climate. The organization changes the culture. And there's a number of things that will be transparent to you or your listeners that I see in this organization that show that we're going in the right direction.

I see conversations that are happening via email, where junior leaders are having conversations on how we address the very challenges that were identified in the assessment. My job is to make sure that I continue that trend, give them the education and tools to make their subordinate units even better than they are now.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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