Vermont’s governor and the leader of the Vermont National Guard met with reporters today to discuss a series of articles that questioned the culture and operations at the Vermont military base.
The online investigative newspaper VTDigger recently published a multi-part series on the Vermont Air Guard titled “The Flying Fraternity.” Its initial segment assessed the culture of the Vermont Guard, and subsequent articles reviewed issues such as sexual harassment, retaliation against whistleblowers and alcohol use by pilots.
At the Vermont National Guard headquarters at Camp Johnson in Colchester Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott, the Guard’s Commander-in-Chief, expressed his full confidence in the leadership and members of the guard. “Individual situations such as these are the exception not the rule. They do not represent the Vermont National Guard as a whole. Current practice upholds the legal and ethical standards expected of our Guard. I want to be very clear. My faith and confidence in the women and men of the Vermont National Guard is unwavering.”
Adjutant General Steven Cray, the commander of the Vermont National Guard, was critical of the series published by VTDigger. “I vehemently disagree with and dispute the negative characterization of our members and our culture in recent media coverage. The Vermont National Guard is committed to ensuring those who have the personal courage to report harmful bias, acts of discrimination, or crimes of sexual assault are validated and those responsible will be held accountable. I fully acknowledge that we are not a perfect organization. But I and the leadership are committed to improving our culture of dignity and respect. The cases and individuals that were identified in the articles were investigated, reviewed and adjudicated and appropriate action was taken.”
Reporters from VTDigger were present even though the Vermont Guard had removed the organization from its media list for several days. Major General Cray insists it was not retaliation for the series. “I don’t characterize it as punishment. We still answered all of the questions that were asked of us in a timely manner.”
Male Reporter: “What was the goal if you were not punishing them?”
Cray: “I wanted to send a message that said that I did not agree with the tactic of having someone call a survivor and do harm to that individual.”
Governor Scott: “I didn’t agree with the decision. I think General Cray knows that at this point.”
Female Reporter: “General Cray did that survivor express that they were upset that they were contacted over the story?”
Cray: “Yes they did.”
VTDigger Editor Anne Galloway is hopeful that newly promised transparency will come to fruition. “The people who came forward were not happy with the way they were treated. But they were life-long members of the Guard who are very committed to the institution. You know they wanted these stories to get out there because they felt that the organization was not being transparent enough about some of the incidents.”
There are just under 3,000 Army National Guard, about 1,000 Air National Guard and about 130 Vermont military department state employees at the National Guard facility.
On Thursday evening VTDigger's Anne Galloway sent this email to media:
We would like to respond to a claim made by Maj. Gen. Steven Cray in today's press conference.
Cray said Thursday that he had decided to remove VTDigger from its press list after one of its reporters contacted a sexual assault survivor.
“I wanted to send a message that I did not agree with the tactic of having someone call a survivor and do harm to that individual,” Cray told reporters.
In fact, the Guard said we were removed from the list on Sept. 28 for the following reasons: we were unprofessional in going around the public affairs office to contact guard officials for the Flying Fraternity series; we didn't give them a fair chance to respond to an avalanche report in September; and we misrepresented Guard responses to questions about the F-35 in a series earlier in the year. In all three cases, we stand by our reporting practices.
In the Flying Fraternity series, VTDigger followed journalistic best practices per Harvard's Nieman Foundation on Journalism in how to balance sensitivity to victims and the need to report on their abuse.
In mid-October, the Guard member we believe Gen. Cray was referencing provided a VTDigger reporter with contact information for an assault victim, whom the member believed would be willing to discuss the matter. She and the reporter had multiple conversations before she eventually decided not to publicly share her story. VTDigger respected that request.
Anne Galloway, Colin Meyn, Jim Welch