The National Guard system – crucial to America's military defense and vital to state emergency operations – is reeling from corruption and misconduct that reflect overarching command failures, a USA TODAY investigation has found.
For more than two decades, state Guards from Alaska to California to Delaware have been shaken by scandals, often exposed by whistleblowers who are subjected to retaliation amid coverups.
In Maryland, a Black soldier was taunted and forced to wear chains as punishment.
In Vermont, an Air Guard commander allegedly flew a fighter jet to the nation's capital, where he had a tryst with a Pentagon official.
In state after state, soldiers have been sexually assaulted or harassed, only to suffer reprisal from executive officers.
Throughout the National Guard system, which consists of 54 independent state and territorial militias, soldiers and airmen have complained for decades about abuses that suggest a failure of culture and oversight.
Critics contend that pervasive corruption and a lack of transparency betray America's nearly 445,000 National Guard troops while shielding culprits, even as Guard units are relied upon more than ever.
“It’s a structural deficit of accountability,” said Dwight Stirling, a California National Guard attorney and director of the Center for Law and Military Policy. “What you get there is one thing – corruption."
The lion’s share of soldiers and airmen maintain military values. They hunt drug smugglers, provide disaster relief, fight wildfires and support pandemic efforts while serving as a war-time reserve force for the regular U.S. military.
In state after state, however, records show Guard scandals have led to cover-ups and retaliation against whistleblowers.
A 2015 report by the Pentagon and a special state investigation a year later characterized the Alaska National Guard climate as seething with sexual abuse, fraud and other misconduct.
Soldiers so distrusted the leadership that they turned to chaplains, who as whistleblowers complained that “a culture of fear and corruption” was smothering Guard members.
Gov. Ron DeSantis replaced the Florida National Guard’s adjutant general two years ago amid revelations of sexual abuse, coverups and reprisal.
A member of the Judge Advocate General Corps, Maj. Elliot Potter, exposed the misconduct, according to the Tampa Bay Times. He alleged that the second-highest officer in the Florida Guard had “actively concealed evidence of sexual misconduct and other violence committed against soldiers” for years, the Times reported.
A civilian contractor in the case submitted a sworn statement that the officer, Brig. Gen. Mike Canzoneri, approached her at a conference and "slowly ran his hand from one side of my bare shoulder to the other." She alleged Canzoneri had an affair with a subordinate and transferred her when she declined to sexually accommodate his friends.
Canzoneri was accused of covering up for misconduct by a colleague, Lt. Col. Scott L. Taylor. An inspector general letter concluded that Taylor brought “discredit to the Florida National Guard,” yet he was promoted six months later.
In 2017, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported on racism and a toxic culture within the Kansas National Guard. Investigators uncovered enlistment fraud, sexual abuse, retaliation, cronyism, and cover-ups.
A lieutenant colonel who said a Black sergeant dressed like a pimp and was a “tongue-chewing retard” was admonished for having “little regard for soldiers under his care." Then he was promoted to full colonel.
An investigative report stressed that the Kansas Guard’s longtime adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, should stop shielding personnel from accountability. It warned that without reforms there would be continued “fear of reprisals, threats and more toxic leadership.” Tafanelli, who deflected questions at the time, survived the furor and retired from the Kansas Guard’s top leadership post last year.
A Black sergeant in the Maryland National Guard was forced to carry a heavy chain during training exercises while being hectored by white supervisors, according to a scathing report from the National Guard Bureau's Office of Equity and Inclusion.
Sgt. Bruce Weaver, who was ordered to haul the chain during three days of training, told USA TODAY the treatment resembled punishment by enslavers.
Investigators substantiated 11 counts of discrimination and one of harassment. Their report accused Maryland of violating Weaver's right to due process.
State militia leaders, who had exonerated the officers following internal probes, denounced the bureau's conclusions as biased. The Guard announced later that it wouldn't challenge the findings.
This year, the Star Tribune reported that Minnesota's Guard has "no consistent or timely system for handling sexual assault cases" after the newspaper obtained records that showed just nine criminal prosecutions resulted from 112 assaults over six years.
State lawmakers removed sexual assault investigations from National Guard authority.
The change, which garnered bipartisan support, places military sexual crimes under jurisdiction of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
In 2014, Lt. Col. Michael Fayette told the Columbia Daily Tribune he was falsely accused of misconduct after he tried to expose state Guard discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation.
Fayette, a soldier of 25 years, had served as deputy inspector general for the Army National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon before he took a position as policy director in Missouri’s Guard.
After becoming a whistleblower, Fayette alleged, he became a target for reprisal from Adjutant General Steve Danner, who at the time served as chairman of the National Guard Association of the United States.
Like many such controversies, this one alleged that the initial wrongdoing was compounded when leaders protected perpetrators and betrayed those who supported victims of abuse.
“If you stand up for the gay officer, if you stand up for the Black officer, if you stand up for the lady who is suing over a hostile work environment against a general … they will destroy you,” Fayette told the Tribune. “They don’t care if you are dying, they don’t care if you have no money. … They will do whatever they can do to get you and put you into a submissive hold you can’t get out of.”
The controversy reportedly led to investigations by the Department of Defense and the Army’s Office of the Inspector General. Findings have not been divulged.
In the regular Army, physical fitness and weight requirements are strictly enforced. In the National Guard, not so much.
Soldiers and airmen describe a system in which cronies help one another cheat or simply skip testing by claiming medical exemptions.
This came to a head in New Jersey in 2019 after a Washington Post story headlined, “Inside Chris Christie’s militia, flab and cronyism trigger mutiny in the ranks.”
The article noted that the New Jersey governor's first appointment to lead the Guard, a childhood pal, had to resign after staffers caught him having an affair at work.
The governor’s next pick, Brig. Gen. Michael Cunniff, was reprimanded by the Defense Department in 2018 for failing to fulfill fitness requirements. Christie ordered Cunniff to meet military standards.
In New Jersey, as elsewhere, the weight issue was a symptom of larger problems in the Guard. According to the Post, junior officers had written to the governor complaining about a “demeaning and toxic” command culture, and the state’s top Black and Hispanic officers complained to him about racial discrimination. Their letter warned about a climate of “mistrust, secrecy, intimidation, deception, favoritism, cronyism and unethical behavior.”
Brian Scully, a retired Army colonel, told the Post he was fired after helping expose the extramarital affair involving Christie’s friend. He compared New Jersey’s Guard to a mafia: “One minute you’re the made man. The next, you get a bullet in the back of your head. Only here it’s career assassination.”
In August, after a Philadelphia Inquirer series on misconduct in the Pennsylvania National Guard, members of Congress began pressing leadership for answers and reforms.
Again, sexual abuse and harassment were at the forefront. According to the Inquirer, one officer and others described the 111th Attack Wing as “a frat-boy atmosphere where rape jokes are tolerated, beer steins in the base bar feature images of naked women, and a high-ranking pilot’s 'call sign' was a reference to the act of a man ejaculating inside a woman.”
There was another familiar element: The newspaper reported that harassment and discrimination were coupled with reprisal against anyone who dared speak out.
Minutes after WSMV-TV in Nashville aired a 2016 story about a Tennessee National Guard recruiter who was stopped for drunk driving, someone launched a Molotov cocktail at the home of a suspected whistleblower.
The television station had revealed that the recruiter had been busted with a young recruit and numerous open containers of alcohol in the vehicle. After pleading guilty to a lesser charge, the noncommissioned officer received a promotion rather than discipline.
When a reporter asked Tennessee’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Terry Hastin, whether he was concerned about possible retaliation against one of his soldiers, he responded, “Not at all," according to WSMV.
A lieutenant colonel, who was kicked out of the Texas National Guard this year for being overweight, claimed other officers in the same physical shape were not removed.
Cendy Brister-Antley, a nurse and administration officer who held a desk job, told KXAN-TV in Austin she was being singled out and "fat-shamed."
Internal Guard emails obtained by KXAN indicated the weight rule is arbitrarily enforced, leading to “the perception of targeting.”
"I do feel it's discrimination," Brister-Antley said. "I don’t understand why they’re kicking out people that gained weight? Are we suddenly less intelligent, because we gained weight?”
In 2018, the news site VTDigger published a six-part series on mistreatment of women, alcohol abuse, favoritism, fraud and other corrupt behavior in the Vermont National Guard.
The articles noted that the Guard in Vermont dates to the Green Mountain Boys, a unit that won a historic victory in the Revolutionary War. The stories depicted a “good ol’ boys’ club” of airmen who ran a private drinking club on base, sexually harassed female personnel and were seldom held accountable.
The Vermont Guard’s F-16 wing commander was removed after he allegedly flew a fighter jet to Washington, D.C., for meetings and a tryst with a female colonel. (F-16s, which cost about $8,000 per hour to operate, are not authorized for administrative travel.) According to VTDigger, Col. Thomas Jackman Jr. was allowed to retire without penalties or loss of his top-secret clearance.
Meanwhile, the whistleblower who reported Jackman’s behavior – Lt. Col. Jeff Rector – was accused of multiple offenses, including making a threat. VTDigger reported the supposed threat was an email to superiors indicating Rector would turn to Congress if the Guard did not act.
Rector was escorted off the base by an armed guard, stripped of security clearance and issued an other-than-honorable discharge. (After media coverage, the news site reported, Rector’s top-secret clearance was reinstated and his discharge status was revised.)
This year, Seven Days, an alternative weekly paper in Vermont, reported that a noncommissioned officer facing multiple rape charges managed to remain in the Guard for years despite numerous convictions, including those for violent incidents that restricted him from possessing firearms.
Guard leaders said they were not aware of Staff Sgt. Daniel Blodgett’s rap sheet. They cited privacy statutes in declining to reveal whether he’d been disciplined.
After a public outcry, Gov. Phil Scott called for better oversight. “I believe that we will see change and that we will have a better system as a result of this situation,” he said.
Teresa James earned a Bronze Star in while serving in Iraq. She was praised as an "exceptionally exemplary" soldier – until 2012 when she reported a sexual assault by a superior officer the West Virginia National Guard.
James was among seven women who accused the colonel of sexual misconduct. Her complaint was substantiated by a National Guard Bureau investigation.
It didn't matter. Suddenly, James said, performance reviews went from stellar to subpar. Her promotion to colonel was denied. Reluctantly, she ended her career with a medical retirement.
Cap Times investigation: The National Guard welcomes and promotes women. That is, until they report a sexual assault
"You go from hero to zero in a matter of hours," James said.
Left to its own devices, the Wisconsin National Guard botched at least 33 sexual assault investigations, ignoring the state’s Code of Military Justice as well as Army and Air Force regulations.
In 2019, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Cap Times exposed systemic failures in the state Guard. An independent probe confirmed that Guard leaders conducted improper criminal investigations, failed to report sex crimes to police, did not track case data and used untrained investigators, among other violations.
The newspapers described how females throughout the National Guard system have seen their military careers wrecked after reporting sexual assaults.
Wisconsin's longtime commander, Adjutant General Donald Dunbar, was forced to step down. His replacement, Brig. Gen. Paul Knapp, said the Guard has implemented improvements in reporting and investigating sexual assault. But reform has been limited because state legislators failed to update Wisconsin's Code of Military Justice, which does not contain best practices found in the code for federal service members.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: National Guard scandals in these 13 states raise questions about culture and accountability