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By Joshua Cohen
Vermont National Guard Public Affairs
The Vermont National Guard has publically released a 113-page assessment prepared by the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations at the request of VTNG Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Gregory Knight.
In November 2019, shortly after his election as VTNG’s next adjutant general, Knight requested assistance from OCI to provide a detailed assessment of the VTNG command climate and systems. The Guard released the final version of the assessment on Aug. 8.
“I started my career with the VTNG over 30 years ago, I know this organization well enough to realize that areas exist where we need to improve,” Knight said.
COVID-19 restrictions significantly delayed the report’s completion, which also forced the team to complete some of the research remotely. A change in NGB senior leadership and the National Guard’s participation in Operation Capitol Response further impeded the document’s release.
The report included results of a statewide VTNG command climate survey, collection and analysis of relevant documents, on-site interviews of complainants and subject matter experts, site assessment visits and canvassing of VTNG service members.
“During that process our members spoke openly and honestly,” Knight said. “I want them to know that I have heard them.”
The NGB Assessment Team made findings and recommendations in the areas of sexual assault and harassment prevention and response; equal employment opportunity; personnel management; disciplinary actions; as well as command climate, culture, and accountability.
According to Knight, the results were not a surprise. “As suspected, the assessment found the VTNG is healthy and performing at a very high level.”
He noted the report “offers substantial analysis into the areas we can improve.”
Sexual Assault and Harassment Prevention and Response
NGB found VTNG written policies on sexual assault, “generally consistent with current federal law, regulations, and policy, however, they lack specifics to ensure compliance within the major commands of the Vermont National Guard.”
The team also reported manpower, resourcing and credentialing as insufficient for the VTNG sexual assault and harassment prevention program, “which has contributed to program inefficiencies and diminished performance.”
The report went on to state the sexual assault and harassment reporting has improved since the period of the assessment, 2017-2020 and has properly referred unrestricted reports to appropriate investigatory entities.
Overall, the report noted that “Vermont National Guard service members generally found their sexual assault prevention and response climate to be adequate.”
The NGB Team concluded no “specific adverse effects to the entire enterprise of the Vermont National Guard due to the deficiencies and failures in its programs and systems related to sexual assault, sexual harassment, and other workplace or service-related misconduct.”
To address concerns identified in the report, the VTNG Sexual Assault Response Coordinator will work with National Guard Bureau to implement updated.
Overall, the report acknowledged the VTNG Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program excels in its primary mission: to provide optimal victim services to survivors of sexual assault.
Equal Employment Opportunity / Equal Opportunity
The report states that “Vermont National Guard’s written policies on prevention and response to allegations of illegal discrimination do not reflect current federal law, DoD, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or National Guard Bureau policies.”
According to the report, Harassment in the Workplace policies do not provide adequate protections for complainants, while EEO/EO programs complaint resolution process does not comply with NGB Policy.
The report goes on to list “a lack of adequate resources and command emphasis,” as additional factors regarding workplace harassment and complainant protection. The team cited a “lack of fully trained and qualified EEO/EO personnel” and “lack of resourcing” as contributing elements.
Knight agrees, stating, “These finding comes as no surprise, we have been working on updating our policies to bring them up to standard, we continue to do so with the benefit of specific NGB guidance.”
One NGB recommendation states that “Equal Opportunity professionals must process and promote a retaliation/reprisal prevention program and complaints process in compliance with DoD and NGB policy and regulation.”
The VTNG has a newly published Harassment Policy that not only complies with federal standards, it also creates an easier program for members wishing to access resources and resolutions.
To directly address shortcomings identified in the report, the VTNG State Equal Employment Manager will work with the National Guard Bureau to further improve policies.
Additionally, as of April 1, 2021, the SEEM now reports directly to VTNG Adjutant General, in accordance with EEOC guidance.
Culture, Reprisal, Retaliation & Bullying
A Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute survey used in the assessment showed the majority of VTNG personnel expressed favorable job satisfaction and trust in leadership. However, the survey responses also indicated a strong perception of favoritism, or a “good old boy” network, that may erode that trust.
Civilian employees expressed broader concerns regarding the VTNG’s overall organizational effectiveness.
"I hear those concerns, which is why we have actively begun to put new policies and programs in place to add standardization and as much transparency as poosible to how we hire, promote, select, and when necessary, discipline members," Knight said. The Merit-Based Hiring policy and Army Officer Career Management Program are two examples of sustainable systems in place to make sure the VTNG has "the right people in the right position at the right time."
Results of the DEOMI survey further revealed “some junior personnel may fear voicing their leadership concerns over fear of reprisal or retaliation,” although “an adequate number of members of the VTNG expressed favorable answers regarding reprisal and retaliation.”
A significant number DEOMI responses “expressed perceptions of favoritism within the VTNG that may stifle meaningful change due to fear of reprisal, retaliation, or marginalization.”
Changes already underway to address perceptions of favoritism include a new Merit Based Placement Policy, a Vermont Army National Guard Officer Career Management Plan and updates to the new Vermont Air National Guard enlisted promotion processes.
A newly implemented “Reach Up” function on the VTNG mobile app now allows for anonymous and direct reporting of misconduct or specific concerns of retaliation.
Personnel Management, Hiring, Promotions and Assignments
According to the report, a significant number of personnel believe the VTNG has appropriate policies and procedures in place for personnel, hiring, and promotion and assignment regulations.
However, within the VTNG organizational reporting structure an apparent lack of clarity as to responsibilities and expectations at the senior leadership level does seem to exist. Survey findings indicate this has contributed to friction at top levels of leadership leading to an overall negative impact on the organization. This has been corrected with a published document that clarifies roles and responsibilities of the VTNG senior leaders.
As stated in other areas of the report, “Policies and procedures were generally outdated ... which has led to (a) significant number of personnel not having sufficient clarity of organizational expectations and lacking confidence that policies and procedures are fairly and consistently enforced in the organization.”
There was some indication of unfairness related to position assignments and hiring practices in the VTNG, especially for women.
At the time of the assessment, the Vermont Army National Guard did not have an official written publication or policy for its selection and promotion practices may have contributed to these concerns. However, the Guard now has a new merit-based hiring policy in place, as well as an Army National Guard Officer Career Management Plan, both of which should help alleviate some of the identified concerns.
Disciplinary Actions and Misconduct
According to the report’s findings, “current military legal support does not appear optimal to meet the needs of the VTNG,” while noting “a lack of clarity surrounding acceptable/unacceptable conduct (especially for fraternizations) and a lack of written policies addressing acceptable/unacceptable conduct in the VTNG.”
The NGB team assessed that VTNG suffers from a lack of transparency at all levels of the organization regarding the adjudication and disposition of misconduct cases. The VTNG should review and improve training on when commander directed investigations, formal and informal administrative investigations, and boards of officers are appropriate and how to conduct them more effectively.
VTNG addressed these concerns prior to the report’s findings. In 2020, VTNG established a Provost Marshall Office to improve communication with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, in the hopes of receiving a direct notification when members been arrested or may pose a threat to the organization.
In addition, the office will investigate allegations of misconduct of Vermont National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, work closely with the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, judge advocate general, and local law enforcement when a report has been made.
Finally, the PMO will assist civilian law enforcement agencies and the Office of Complex Investigations with investigations and reports as needed.
“Creating and staffing the Provost Marshal team took over a year, but now we have them, and they are making our systems better,” Knight said. “We’ll continue to make progress.”
The NGB report also recommended establishment of a consolidated action tracking system to “improve oversight of all adverse administrative actions.”
In 2021, VTNG began compiling quarterly Joint Status of Discipline reports that will share administrative actions taken over the previous quarter with the goal of providing as much information as possible while also offering closure and deterrence from future misconduct.
Overall Situation and Recommendations
The report states “The overall climate within the Vermont National Guard is positive. With some exceptions, service members generally reported confidence and trust in their immediate leaders, which has resulted in high retention across the force.”
In the report’s final analysis the team proposes three overarching recommendations for the Vermont National Guard.
The first recommendation, already underway, involves the updating and or correcting of all written policies and procedures; protocols and practices; to conform with federal law, regulation, and policy.
The second recommendation involves additional National Guard Bureau staff assistance to facilitate program, system, and relationship updates, corrections, and improvements.
Finally, the report recommends reinforcing program management tools, processes, and services through more deliberate communication and coordination with internal, external, and higher echelon partners and resources.
Overall, the assessment revealed no major issues within the Vermont National Guard, it did identify several specific opportunities within the scope of the assessment where leadership suspected progress was necessary. Knight said he and senior leadership take this very seriously and will implement these recommendations.
“We will never achieve the perfect organization, but we will never stop working towards the vision of cultivating an organization in which every member may thrive,” Knight said. “The VTNG does a lot right, I don’t have to look very far in this organization to find a lot of goodness, and to improve we must shine a light on our deficiencies and attack them with purpose, this assessment will help us do just that.”