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The Wyoming Military Department gives annual report on sexual assault, Cowboy Challenge Academy

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Wyoming Military Department
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The Wyoming Military Department presented its annual report on sexual harassment and assault as well as the closure of the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy (WCCA) to the legislature’s Joint Transportation, Highways, and Military Affairs Committee on Nov. 2.

National Guards annual report on sexual harassment and assault

The annual report to the legislature came about after a law passed this year requiring this briefing. This comes as there has been an increase in sexual assault incidents and equal employment opportunity complaints in the last year as well as criticism about the WCCA’s abrupt closure.

“The CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] will tell you that about every 68 seconds, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted,” said Wyoming National Guard Adjutant General Greg Porter. “If we're going to bring that a little bit closer to Wyoming, if you look at Wyoming, the average forcible rape per 100,000 in the United States is 38. Wyoming sits at 57 on the top 10 in forcible rapes in the U.S.”

Porter added the victims that the military department has dealt with have often reflected wider societal trends for sexual assault. This commonly consists of women aged 18-24 that tend to know their perpetrators and are of similar age if they hold the same rank. He cited a 2018 University of Wyoming study that indicated one third of female students had experienced sexual assault in their lives.

In regards to the national guard’s annual report, he said there were two perpetrators in the last year, one of which was investigated by local law enforcement. That case was closed with no charges filed while the other case occurred at a local bar and is still being investigated by local law enforcement, after which the guard will address it.

“My goal as the Adjutant General -- one is that we have no perpetrators in the Wyoming National Guard. Number two is those victims that we do have [can] feel free to report and receive services from the Wyoming Military Department and the Department of Defense without fear of any retaliation or embarrassment or anything like this. And lastly, our focus is going to continue to go on prevention,” said Porter.

He said the Department of Defense is focusing in on this area and aims to take care of victims and to be proactive about preventing sexual assault.

Porter said there has been an increase in the number of cases this fiscal year, of which 16 were reported, compared to six in 2021. These include nine of them being classified as restricted, in which the chain of command isn’t notified of the details, though victims can receive services. An additional seven cases were classified as unrestricted. Three of these had taken place in previous years but were only recently reported. None of the cases had taken place on a drill weekend or occurred during the performance of official military duties. Six involved women under age 24 while the seventh involved two men. Five of the seven victims were acquainted with their perpetrator while the seventh occurred after work hours and away from duty stations.

“[The] military department has roughly 731 females in it, give or take at any point in time,” Porter said. “If you look at even at the lowest level of sexual assault, that you would see it a quarter of that, and it's still a tremendous amount of folks that that are experiencing sexual assault, and, frankly, it's shocking, and we got to get after it as a society, as a country, as a state as we go forward.”

Complaints of a hostile work environment is something the military department has had to address. Porter said there were four non formal complaints, one of which was withdrawn by the complainant. Three formal complaints were registered with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and were non-sexual in nature. One was regarding the COVID-19 vaccine mandate and two others were regarding the relationship with a supervisor.

But despite these issues, Porter indicated recent unit surveys have indicated that things have improved in previous years.

“Two years ago in the report, I told you there was some sort of ambient sexual assault or sexual comments in nature, there was some potentially some jokes, that sort of thing that was occurring in units,” he said. “We didn't get that sense this time, that seemed to have cleared up somewhat. Really, most of our concerns were pretty mundane--pay bonuses, a lack of communication up and down channels, full time resourcing, those kinds of things.”

The report noted there were no reported instances related to gender, religion, or sexual orientation either.

Porter said additional training on these topics will be required of all personnel and employees. Other changes include hiring a new employment manager and creating a workforce prevention team. Reporting related to sexual assault and harassment has been on the rise, which Porter said is a positive sign as long as information is kept confidential and if actions can be taken for cases.

Closure of Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy (WCCA)

The closure of the WCCA in mid-September was also discussed during the military department’s report to the committee. The safety of the program’s cadets was cited as a main reason for closure.

“I really made the decision to close WCCA in order to ensure the safety of cadets and I recommended that to Governor Gordon, the Governor concurs,” Porter explained. “At the time, the day we made that decision, there were six cadet team leaders and additional four cadet supervisory positions that were vacant and that excluded the two personnel of the program that called in sick that day. And I tell you the decision wasn't made lightly.”

Staffing and recruiting employees were a major issue that the WCCA faced. Located at the Wyoming National Guard base at Camp Guernsey, they had issues keeping staff as well. This led some members of the committee to consider involving other state agencies, such as the Department of Family Services and even community organizations such as VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) groups as possible solutions.

Lawmakers criticized the department’s decision to shutter the program halfway through hosting a class.

“We need to figure out why it went downhill,” said Rep. Clarence Styvar (R-Laramie County). “I'm looking at this report just scanning through it, looking at stuff gone. That should have never happened. You know, the stuff that happened in here, it's on the leadership.”

Some cadets elected to join similar challenge programs in Idaho, California, and Montana, and will graduate on time when those classes do in December. Others elected to return to their high schools with several cadets choosing to attend Nevada’s challenge program, which begins in January. There’s a chance the program could be relaunched at a later date in another location, however with a larger population base to draw from. It would also require the legislature’s involvement.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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