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Alaska National Guard unit being investigated for allegations of sexual misconduct

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013 7:00 a.m. CST

WASHINGTON — Current and former members of the Alaska National Guard say there’s serious sexual misconduct within the ranks and an investigation of recruiters accused of rape is now underway.

Lt. Col. Jane Wawersik, a former Anchorage police officer, is investigating allegations of sexual assault as well as other offenses, such as inappropriate relationships with new recruits, by members of the Alaska Army Guard’s recruiting and retention unit headquartered at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Members of the guard said other soldiers are also under investigation.

Sgt. Rosa Ralls, a currently serving member of the Alaska National Guard who reported being raped in 2009 by a former member of the military, said the sexual assault problem is severe.

“It’s horrible, it really is,” she said.

Lt. Col. Rick Koch, the state command chaplain for the Alaska National Guard, and Lt. Col. Ted McGovern, a chaplain in the Alaska Army National Guard, questioned why it’s taken so long for action.

The two chaplains said sexual assault victims have been coming to them for years, and that the majority were assaulted by fellow guard members. The chaplains said victims don’t trust their commanders to help because of a history of mishandled complaints, in which victims felt that nothing was being done.

“There were lots of bread crumbs on the trail that were never taken seriously. It was almost shocking to think that somebody wouldn’t try to bore down deeper than they did,” Koch said.

Maj. Gen. Tom Katkus, who has led the Alaska National Guard since 2009 as the adjutant general, confirmed “we do have some investigations going on.” He said he could not discuss the details.

Katkus said the guard investigates all allegations of sexual misconduct.

“The Alaska National Guard will do everything appropriate to protect our women and men from sexual assault, and those who would attack their dignity and honor. We are focusing efforts on prevention, victim support, investigations, and accountability,” the general said in a written response to questions.

The military is grappling with a nationwide sexual assault crisis. The Pentagon reported a 35 percent increase over two years in the estimated number of military personnel victimized by sexual assault and related crimes. Sexual misconduct is already an issue in Alaska, where the commander of the Army National Guard’s 49th Missile Defense battalion at Fort Greely was suspended this summer following complaints that he condoned affairs.

The Alaska National Guard is part of the state’s Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs. There are 1,905 members of the Army guard and another 2,029 serving in the air guard.

Katkus said the federal National Guard Bureau has helped every state as the Department of Defense gained an understanding of the magnitude of the problem across the country.

The Alaska National Guard now has a trained sexual assault investigator, he said, while it used to have to rely on its senior officers to investigate.

Chaplains Koch and McGovern said the administration of Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, who oversees the Alaska National Guard, was told of sexual assault problems as far back as fall 2010.

The chaplains also said sexual harassment is pervasive in the Alaska guard and that the culture needs to change. “I would imagine every female in our organization has at least been harassed,” Koch said.

The chaplains said some of the victims came to them through Lt. Col. Ken Blalock. Blalock said the first sexual assault victim, a subordinate, came to him around four years ago for help.

He said others soon followed after word got around that he would help them.

“I’ve had 15 sexual assault victims come to me,” said Blalock, who is no longer in the National Guard.

Blalock said he brought sexual assault victims to the Anchorage police and the governor’s office but nothing came of it except he got in trouble with his chain of command.

“I reported to police and the next thing I know I was getting my butt chewed by Gen. Katkus for daring to go outside of the chain of command with this stuff,” Blalock said. “If a guardsman goes and robs a bank, you call the police; you don’t call the general.”

Katkus said multiple agencies have looked into allegations by Blalock and “so far they haven’t been able to substantiate too much.”

In his written response to questions, Katkus said National Guard investigators pass information to law enforcement immediately when they became aware of possible criminal activity.

Katkus, a member of the governor’s Cabinet as commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs, was an officer in the Anchorage Police Department for more than 20 years.

He said that as a police officer he learned firsthand the impact that sexual assault has on victims and the community, and that he is committed to protecting members of the guard.

“It is my non-negotiable responsibility to ensure that every member of this organization root out any and all harassment, hostile work environment, sexual assault, or trading of sexual favors,” he said.

Lt. Col. Wawersik’s investigation began in December and focuses on multiple members of the guard’s recruiting unit. Wawersik declined to comment when reached by McClatchy.

Court filings show that this summer Wawersik sought and obtained a 20-day protective order against one of the soldiers, Master Sgt. John Nieves, who was a recruiting commander before being reassigned.

Wawersik wrote in the court filings that she was afraid Nieves would hurt or kill her.

“Nieves is a subject of a military investigation I am conducting regarding recruiter misconduct with recruits. … As a result of my investigation Nieves stands to lose his 20 year career and be publicly humiliated,” she wrote.

Nieves told his counselor at Fort Richardson that “he has a specific plan in mind to harm me,” Wawersik wrote in her petition for the protective order. The counselor took the threat seriously and contacted Wawersik to warn her, the petition said.

Wawersik also wrote that the Anchorage Police Department was conducting an undercover investigation “regarding Nieves offering an individual money to harm a witness in my investigation.”

Police consider Nieves dangerous and advised her to get the protective order, Wawersik wrote. She added that, even as a former 10-year police officer, she had “never felt more in fear for her life.”

Nieves has not been charged with any crime. He said at a July court hearing that the alleged threat against Wawersik was an overreaction. “It was a counselor, somebody I confide in with my issues, it just happened to be that day I was upset. … No woman should be under any threat. Period. I am sorry,” Nieves said, according to an audio recording of the court hearing.

The judge declined to issue a long-term protective order.

Nieves, reached for comment last week, said he’s never committed sexual assault and did not seek to harm any witness.

He said he is awaiting the conclusion of the National Guard’s investigation.

“I haven’t been charged with anything, just told that I’m being investigated for basically sexual misconduct. And that’s it, that’s all I know,” he said.

Nieves said he couldn’t discuss details while the investigation is ongoing.

“I wish I could, honestly, I do want to talk about it. … I haven’t had any chance to clear my name at all.”

The guard’s problems have attracted the attention of Alaska’s congressional delegation. Sen. Mark Begich said he started hearing last year from constituents about misconduct in the organization.

“We were getting such a frequency from a variety of sources that it told us there is something going on there,” Begich said.

Begich said his inquiries led to a National Guard Bureau review of the Alaska Guard. While it didn’t tackle the scope of the sexual assault issue, Begich said he thinks it triggered a broader review.

Sexual assault numbers are problematic, as it’s a crime that’s often unreported. Gen. Katkus said there have been 29 cases of alleged sexual assault reported since 2009 to the Alaska Army and Air National Guard’s sexual assault response coordinator.

The alleged perpetrators were members of the military in 11 of the cases and civilians in the rest of them, according to Katkus.

In some cases the victim did not want the attack known. But most of the reports were referred for investigation to local law enforcement, he said, such as Anchorage police or state troopers.

Katkus said he is not aware of any prosecutions resulting from the cases.

Anchorage police offered little explanation in response to a series of questions from McClatchy, other than to say that its special victims unit works closely with the National Guard.

“The Anchorage Police Department has made targeting the problem of sexual assault in our community a priority, and each report of sexual assault submitted to APD is reviewed and investigated based on its individual circumstances and merit, regardless of suspect or victim affiliations,” said a spokeswoman.

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