The California National Guard has a long history of serving the country in critical times of need. Its members fight wildfires in Southern California, respond to emergencies such as earthquakes and the LA Riots and recently assisted with rescue efforts in super storm Sandy. It is a reserve military force of 23,000 guard members—the largest in the nation—where "integrity first" is a guiding principle.
But a joint investigation by NBC Southern California and NBC Bay Area has uncovered a disturbing hidden culture in the California National Guard where some guard members say sexual assault and racism at times go unchecked, and where retaliation is a frequent method of discipline.
During the past six months reporters spoke with nearly two dozen men and women from the California Guard who have found no solution inside and now want to expose what they say is the truth.
Staff Sergeant Ann Oluwadare has two decades of military experience as a Marine and member of the California National Guard where one of her duties entailed setting up emergency shelters for disaster victims.
“I have always been one who fought for other people,” she said. “I have always been the one to look out for the underdog. I thought that was the grass root of it all.”
Oluwadare says the Guard let her down following an October 2010 incident at the Joint Force Headquarters in Sacramento, where she says she was the only African-American woman in the Government Affairs Office.
Her story starts with the simple unfolding of a dollar bill—money she had collected from the cash box of her informal office snack bar.
“One day I was cleaning out the box and I found, nicely folded, a dollar bill,” she said. “I opened it up and it has the N***** word on it.”
She told NBC4 investigative reporter Joel Grover that her supervisor grabbed the dollar bill out of her hand and promptly changed the “N” to a “B.”
“Why?” Grover asked Oluwadare.
“I can only assume at the time it was to de-escalate the issue,” Oluwadare said. “To calm me down is what he said.”
Following the incident, Oluwadare sent an email to everyone in her office. She wrote: “While the word is meant to be offensive, I am requesting that such divisive and negative feeling be kept to yourself. Please be respectful of, and professional with, your co-workers. I will pursue a more stringent course of action against you should another incident like this occur.”
Five days later, Oluwadare received another dollar bill.
“I open the bill and I discover this one folded in the same way as the first one,” she said. “It has ‘F*** your mother’ on it.”
According to an internal investigation into the incidents, investigators recommended that the California National Guard take disciplinary action against the member responsible for writing the racial and derogatory epithets. But for Oluwadare, the results failed to change the culture inside the California National Guard, and the Joint Force Headquarters where she still works.
“I had faith in this organization and they let me down,” Oluwadare said choking back tears. “They would like to keep this a dirty little secret. They would like to keep it right there in the closet with all the other skeletons. But now the skeletons are starting to spill out. People are fed up and it’s time for a change.”
Master Sergeant Jessica Brown, a 12-year veteran of the California National Guard, also refuses to accept the way leaders handled an attack she says happened to her in 2007 when her unit was on a training mission at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. One night following dinner, Brown says a fellow member of the Guard offered to walk her safely to her hotel room.
“He pushed me down on my bed,” she said. “He was on top of me. His hands were up and down my body. And all the while I am telling him to stop—don’t do it. I’m married. He wouldn’t stop.”
Brown says she immediately reported the sexual assault to her direct supervisor, but more than five years later she believes the California National Guard failed to resolve the issues that unfolded in that Las Vegas hotel room.
“The supervisor said that he would handle it,” she said. “Leadership has been told and they don’t do anything about it. They throw it under the rug.”
A March 2011 memo from the California National Guard’s then top commanding officer states that members should “do everything possible to prevent sexual assaults, effectively implement the Army and Air Guard’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Programs and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent allowed under either civilian or military law.” It also instructs commanders to “place special emphasis on ensuring that all accusations of sexual assault are taken seriously and referred to the proper authorities for investigation.”
With no resolution or formal investigation, Brown deployed to Afghanistan. When she returned to her home base at the 129th Rescue Wing at Moffett Field, she claims sexual harassment and inappropriate touching continued. She says it happened for years and most recently happened this summer because it is tolerated in the California National Guard.
“I have told a number of people about all of the situations and nothing has been done,” she said. “I just can’t believe that the huge chain of command just can’t take care of people.”
A member of the Guard for 12 years, Brown is part of a military family that has served the country for generations. She says the uniform was always there for her but now, she has no faith in the Guard.
“I just want it to stop, I just want it to stop,” she said, tears streaming down her face.
Grover asked Brown: “Your story—is it exposing the dysfunction inside the Guard?”
“Yes,” Brown responded, wiping tears away. “For things to go without any action is bad enough. But it is multiple things over and over again….They just keep hiding it.”
Frustrated with the Guard’s lack of response to Brown’s reports, Lieutenant Colonel David Emery—a Guard member from outside of Brown’s unit—sent a series of memos earlier this year to the top-ranking member and commanding officer of the California National Guard, the Adjutant General, Major General David Baldwin.
In one memo sent April 7, 2012 , Lt. Col. Emery wrote that he contacted the California National Guard’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, who directed leaders in Brown’s chain of command to request an investigation into the alleged assault.
In a memo sent on April 10, 2012, Emery wrote, “…to date, no reported action has been taken against anyone in the Chain of Command regarding the numerous leadership and wingman failures regarding her situation.” In a previous memo sent on January 11, 2012 he wrote that he was “…the first Commander to display any interest in her situation.”
Grover asked Emery, “Why did you decide to get involved here?”
“Because I am a commander,” Emery responded.
“Do you have any reason to doubt her statements?” Grover asked.
“Absolutely not,” Emery said. “She is one of the finest (non-commissioned officers) I have ever seen.”
“For getting involved, were you retaliated against?” Grover asked Emery.
“Oh, absolutely,” Emery said.
He claims he was retaliated against for raising questions about what he considers failures in leadership at the 129th Rescue Wing at Moffett Field, including the lack of response following Sgt. Brown’s sexual assault.
The Petty Report
The NBC4 Southern California and NBC Bay Area joint investigation included meetings and interviews with nearly two dozen men and women from the Guard who claim they have been retaliated against for standing up for what they thought was right. Many of them also say they have witnessed sexual harassment and racism—and all of them say that it is part of the current culture in the California National Guard.
When asked to describe the environment inside the California National Guard, members responded using the following words: toxic, dysfunctional, retaliatory, corrupt and hostile.
“What is the current reputation of the California National Guard?” Grover asked Ronald Petty, decorated military veteran and member of the Oklahoma National Guard.
“Well, it’s not a good one—it’s not a good reputation,” Petty said. “It’s not.”
Chief Warrant Officer Petty is one of two independent investigators sent to California to look into problems inside the Guard. NBC4 Southern California and NBC Bay Area obtained a copy of the report originally requested by the California Guard and ordered by the National Guard Bureau in Washington D.C.
After interviewing 14 members of California’s Guard, the report states: “Sexual harassment and a hostile work environment is commonplace in the California National Guard,” “The California Air National Guard mediation process is seriously flawed,” “Racial tension has been high since 2008…the N-word and F-word are used daily and often…” and “failure to investigate complaints is common.”
“In your decades of experience,” Grover asked Petty, “have you ever seen anything like what you found in California?”
“No,” he said. “I have never found that many people who weren’t getting resolution.”
Chief Petty did say that he believes two recent appointments by Major General Baldwin shows the Guard may finally be serious about cleaning up its problems.
Cleaning Up the Culture
In February of this year, Major General David Baldwin was confirmed as the California National Guard’s Adjutant General after being appointed by Governor Jerry Brown in April 2011 to clean up problems in the Guard. The buck for the California National Guard stops at his desk.
“I have a mandate from the Governor to change the culture of the organization,” Baldwin told the state Senate Rules Committee in Sacramento during the Feb. 15 confirmation hearing.
Through the California Guard’s Director of Public Affairs, Major General Baldwin has declined numerous requests for an on-camera interview to address the cultural problems exposed by members of his Guard, as well as two recent claims of sexual assault during a training mission at Fort Hunter Liggett in Monterey County in October.
In a memo to members of the California National Guard sent on March 9, 2012—the month after he was confirmed—Baldwin wrote, “It is important that all military and civilian personnel…know that my door is always open to them.”
But some members of the California National Guard who came forward to NBC4 Southern California and NBC Bay Area say they continue to feel ignored by senior leadership. And the nine men and women of the California National Guard who spoke on-camera say they haven’t seen any resolution to the cultural problems of racism, sexual harassment and retaliation inside the Guard.
Grover asked the group of whistleblowers, “Major General Baldwin promised to fix the problems you talked about. Did he keep his promise?”
The group responded with a resounding, “No.”
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All interviews for this story were conducted jointly by the investigative teams at NBC4 Southern California and NBC Bay Area.