Major General Thomas Katkus Responds To National Guard Sexual Assault Allegations

Governor Sean Parnell has been responding to allegations that sexual assault crimes within the state’s National Guard were reported to him four years before he requested a federal investigation. The Governor says as soon as he had specific information, he acted. Parnell’s commissioner of the Department of Military and Veteran’s Affairs, Major General Thomas Katkus says the federal investigation should help improve the system.

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Major General Thomas Katkus, how large do you think the sexual assault issue is within Alaska?

The numbers I’ve got show us below what it would be in Alaska, we have a different number, total number of cases,  because we track victims, don’t track it as if we’ve got that many suspects. We’ve got 37 cases; of those 37 cases we have only 11 reported sexual assaults are Guard members as perpetrators. My position is even one is too many and it’s a problem – a large problem; 37 cases over the past 5 years.

How does Alaska compare to military nationally for sexual assault?

With Alaska being the highest sexual assault in the nation, dark climate, small houses, alcohol, there is a lot of propensity toward that kind of activity, which is unfortunate but also very rampant in cold, dark climates. I think the problem is getting better results with the resources being put toward it. The Guard is community based so we have a lot of resources beyond DOD. We have a lot of members in the National Guard that are counselors or lawyers so we have resources. The issue is out there fairly evenly across all services but we’re better equipped to offer services.

Does the legal structure of the Guard make it more cumbersome, more difficult to track cases and get information, Anchorage Police Department handling cases?  Helpful or more difficult?

Difficult to address. We as a National Guard, we don’t have an independent criminal justice system. We’re not like active duty that has its own Uniform Code of Military Justice to address specifically infractions within the National Guard, because we have members that are also traditional, that go home at night and are under the laws of their communities. The authorities that cover our members are really the local authorities, the state troopers or other law enforcement. It’s not our purview to supplement that. We take our own disciplinary actions through normal business practices, rules and regulation enforcement and then we have discipline. But we don’t incarcerate individuals. We don’t have a requirement; that our preponderance of evidence is what we go off of, 51% is civil action as opposed to beyond a reasonable doubt in any type of criminal investigation.

Governor Parnell said he acted to call for a national investigation as soon as he had specifics. What kind of specific information is needed to prompt an investigation?

For the National Guard Bureau that the Governor asked, it’s just the request of the Governor. The Governor, anytime he has a desire to have an independent assessment or look into an organization he’s responsible with, which would be the Air Guard or the Army Guard, he can contact the National Guard Bureau, advise them of the problem and they would propose the best solutions to step forward to look into it. Because it could be a safety issue, it could be an area of concern on finance, so either the safety investigators would come out or an auditor. Or in this case to look at a problem with how the reporting system is or an assessment of how overall, we are addressing sexual assaults or sexual harassment in the National Guard. So, in this case, again, he puts the problem statement forward and they provide the resource that best answers that.

Why wouldn’t chaplains risking their positions to bring the concerns forward to the Governor be enough to prompt an investigation by the DOD?

I don’t know that I have an answer for that. The Chaplains shouldn’t be at risk for bringing any of these issues forward. There’s no risk to them to, matter of fact it’s incumbent on them to bring those issues forward. Their job description is pretty much, they advise the command….trying to make sure I get this right so that this is fairly accurate. The significant responsibility that they’re held to is to advise the commander of issues of ethics, morals and morale within an organization. So they’re almost held on a no harm, no foul. They’re required to bring the bad news forward if they’ve got the bad news.

Well it seems there was some confusion or hesitancy in that regard. Your deputy commissioner asked the chaplains to sign a document saying they wouldn’t speak on behalf of the Guard, when actually what they were doing was bringing victims concerns forward. Did you ask him to do those things or was that something he felt he needed to do as deputy commissioner?

I believe the letter you’re referring to is a letter that went out to all of our members as we approached the political season. It was advising everyone to be very judicious and cautious on how they answer anyone that is approaching them and asking them for an official position of the department. So in that sense that was just to reiterate to clear it with a supervisor and we’re not prohibiting anybody from talking to the press, their chain of command or other people. Just that they try to clear that, get the best information possible and if they’re speaking for the department, make sure they clear it through our public affairs office in order to make sure we have the best, most accurate information out there.

Do you think there needs to be changes in reporting and how people can bring these concerns forward to help boost confidence for people who are taking on the very difficult thing to have to come forward and talk about trauma and painful episodes they may have experienced?

Absolutely, especially with as many deployments as we have because it’s not only in the area of sexual assault, it’s any type of experience that they are not normally exposed to in civilian activity. So there are traumatic events in everyone’s life. We follow DOD policy and its changing constantly. I think in the last five years the department of defense has definitely stepped up its game. It’s provided additional resources and of the limited training dollars, a significant amount of that resource is directed to bystander training, self help awareness to educate people about reporting any type of sexual assault or activity related to it. Then the resourcing for the investigation of those has increased and we’ve worked on training our investigators to investigate the civilian equivalent complaints of sexual harassment. WE have additional resources that would look into any allegations of sexual assault, after the law enforcement have also been engaged on that same topic. And then the victim advocacy program we have. Multiple victim advocates have been assigned to the Guard as of late. Currently have three sexual assault coordinators assigned and 42 victim advocates assigned to the National Guard. So your question was, do I see better ways to do it? We can always improve but it is an incredible change over the past five years to where we are now.

Major General, how damaging is this for morale?

You know, it’s damaging for morale, but where I’m very, very concerned, is we’ve made great strides in making people aware, we have a process in place, it’s very transparent and they can feel comfortable reporting and they’re going to get the help. With all of the adverse press and the senior officials who have basically expressed their concern and trust, I would hope that would not translate to the other end of the food chain to the young members who may be victimized and may now decide not to come forward because of lack of trust in the system. The DOD has spent five years trying to put in place a system that works and I’m very afraid that this might be undermined by the lack of confidence that may be generated by this perception that is out there.

Are you confident that when this investigation is over, that the system will show there are no major problems with how the guard is handling reporting and the cases that come forward?

I’m confident that the assessment will come in with a better way of doing it. This is the first time we’ve really stepped back and evaluated from top to bottom, the entire process.  I would hope they would come in and advise us of better ways to do business. So we look forward to what we will get as feedback. My feeling is we have a good system in place right now, it’s a workable system that follows all of DOD’s processes and regulations and I’m thinking an outside look will provide that much more suggestions that we can incorporate and make this better.

My last question would be, you just mentioned Guard members and a perception of what’s happening. What would be your concern about perception? We know there are high rates of assault, what perception are you concerned about?

Well, the perception I’m concerned about is that, in the past five years, 70% of reported assaults, the perpetrator was a member of our community, not the National Guard. So 11 assaults in five years, those members were Guard members who committed those acts, so out of 37 cases, only 11 have we had to discipline one of our own members over. The rest, the other 26 cases, are all cases were we have provided exceptional support for the victim. Those victim advocates have engaged. We’ve taken the victims to local law enforcement, supported them through all of the issues and tried to make sure we could be there for them. That’s what’s not getting reported here is DOD as an organization has provided incredible response in taking care of the soldiers and airmen that are assigned in the National Guard and that’s where I’m really afraid the perception is being missed here.

Is the Guard looking at, the people who have been victimized. Are there efforts underway to track back and look at where are people getting into positions where they’re at risk. Is there research into that so you can help young men and young women avoid some of those pitfalls?

There’s always different types of training we have people exposed to and mandate and some of the best is bystander training where not only do you train people to look out for themselves and not put themselves into harm’s way but also train soldiers to look out for other people that may be inadvertently putting themselves in harm’s way. So they teach them how to carefully approach a situation and defuse it. Sometimes a third party, that extra set of eyes that the potential victim may not be able to see. So your answer is yes, we’re training people to be safer and we’re training them to look out for each other and realistically that’s how you start solving all of these problems is everyone becomes aware of looking out for each other.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori