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A new law is a response to whistleblower's concern about the military department mishandling reports of harassment and assault

The Wyoming National Guard military base in Cheyenne.
Mike Vanata
The Wyoming National Guard military base in Cheyenne.

Governor Mark Gordon has signed two bills from this year's legislative session that are aimed to increase oversight and transparency of the Wyoming Military Department, which oversees the National Guard. This came after Wyoming Public Media and Wyofile reported on complaints about the department mishandling reports of harassment and assault.

"I think the concept of what's written in the bill isn't terrible," said Marilyn Burden. She served in the Wyoming National Guard for 17 years. She's one of the original whistleblowers of what she calls the National Guard's toxic culture when reporting sexual harassment and assault.

Burden is talking about HB 0053, a bill that requires an agreement between the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services and the Wyoming Military Department to develop a system where workforce services employees handle the military department's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaints. That's the federal authority charged with investigating employer discrimination.

"But it depends upon how the details are written between the military department and workforce services," said Burden.

That's because one of the original complaints of Burden and others interviewed was that the guard makes it really hard to file a complaint with the EEOC. And even though this new law creates an outside entity in charge of EEO complaints, Burden said she's worried the guard will continue its toxic culture.

"There's a possibility, where they could create this never ending cycle, because there are people who have said, 'They go to one person, oh, well, that's not my office, you need to go talk to this other office, and you go to that, you go from EEO to IG. And it goes, yeah, yeah, that's not our office', said Burden.

Others agree with Burden. If this law means a service member who wants to potentially file an EEOC complaint would be directed to the EEO counselor at workforce services, that would clear up the process of filing a complaint. Going straight to an external entity rather than dealing with someone in the military department.

"That'd be the game changer," said Dr. Dwight Stirling, the CEO of the Center for Law and Military Policy. "If there is, in fact, a process that allows for, you know, a third party, a branch of government to look at these complaints that is not controlled by the military."

So, what would be the new process?

Christopher Smith, the head attorney for the Wyoming Military Department, explained.

"What this will do, is when someone has a potential discrimination complaint, which is under Title Seven, it's the race, gender, religion, those kinds of complaints, they will still go to our agencies EEO manager to initiate the complaint," said Smith.

He said the person who service members will be directed to speak to when filing a complaint would still be the EEO manager within the military department.

He said that's because the "EEOC requires us to manage these cases, so we have to know about them anyway."

Smith said additionally due to EEOC rules, the manager is required to take the complaint in writing and then appoint an EEO counselor as part of the informal process.

"We envision at that point, the EEO manager of the Wyoming Military Department will reach out to workforce services, and request someone to be an EEO counselor, that EEO counselor then touches base with the complainant," explained Smith.

To Stirling, the military policy expert, making service members have to go through the military system to have their complaint heard is a barrier to that person's access to the civilian reporting system.

Whistleblower Marilyn Burden agreed, saying they should at least offer different options. It is important to note that Smith, with the military department, said if the complainant wants to go directly to the workforce services employee, they could. Burden said so far everything is theoretical.

"We can put all kinds of amazing stuff on paper. And you won't know how effective it is until you try to run a complaint through the process to figure out what works and what doesn't," she said.

The details of exactly how this new partnership will actually function on the ground are still in the works. The workforce services and military departments have until July 1st to fine tune the details. But Stirling said this effort shows that the politicians along with the military department are attempting to fix the system.

"That kind of external process will give, I would hope if it's done right, a service member kind of a fair shot," said Stirling.

As far as both Smith and Stirling are aware, this is the first time a state military department is partnering with an outside entity to help with the EEO process. But whether it works remains to be seen.

The other bill that Governor Gordon signed is SF0045. That law requires the Wyoming Military Department to present the Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee with data on sexual harassment, discrimination and assault cases annually.

"It can never hurt to have to force the military to depart by doing audits and giving a review of all complaints made to the legislature," said Stirling.

Burden and others interviewed said these two bills are the first step.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. She has won a regional Murrow award for her reporting on mental health and firearm owners. During her time leading the Wyoming Public Media newsroom, reporters have won multiple PMJA, Murrow and Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism Awards. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.

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