Multiple whistleblowers have alleged over the past decade that state and military leadership has failed victims of workplace hostility and sexual assault within the Wyoming National Guard. A recent joint investigation from the nonprofit publication WyoFile and Wyoming Public Media found specifically that women’s complaints often fell on deaf ears and solicited retaliation. To learn more, KHOL interviewed the three authors of the recent investigation: Jennifer Kocher, Kamila Kudelska and Tennessee Watson.
The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Walkey: Jennifer, Tennessee and Kamila, thank you so much for joining me for talking with us about this reporting. Could one of you just outline a little bit some of exactly the types of discrimination and retaliation some of the women that you interviewed for this story are facing?
Jennifer Kocher: I can start there. There was a general consensus of three of the women that I had spoken to. They were in the position to report sexual assault and sexual harassment and discrimination to a smaller degree. And in all cases, they felt that, once they brought those cases or attempted to bring those cases up the chain of command and through the process as dictated then, that it wasn’t as private a process as it was supposed to be. And they were either discouraged from reporting. And by that, I mean, the people they would tell that, to their direct superiors, would say,’ I don’t think that’s necessarily as serious as you think it is.’ It was kind of degrees of seriousness as based on subjective judgment. And then it was retaliation for that.
Walkey: Kamila, in your Wyoming Public Media story, one of your characters talked about when she came forward. Her supervisor and the person that she was talking to sort of mentioned things like alcoholism and just classic kind of deflecting blame toward her rather than towards something else.
Kamila Kudelska: Yeah, definitely. I mean, so Jenny Rigg was someone who, as Jenn [Kocher] mentioned, who actually had the power to help certain airmen be able to report sexual harassment and sexual assault. And she struggled just trying to help them report. Her commanders were telling her that she shouldn’t do this.
And it got worse when she tried to report her own sexual harassment. And that’s where it kind of came to what Jenn was talking about, which is like personal retaliation and what you were referring to. That’s when the commanders started really deflecting on her personal issues that had nothing to do with whether she was truly sexually harassed or not.
And I think to what Jenn was saying earlier, you know, in most cases, these women were retaliated in the way that they weren’t able to do their job anymore. And they all really, really care about the work that they were doing. They wanted to help and serve the United States through the National Guard, through what they were doing. And I think that was always, with at least Jenny, it was, for sure one of the main reasons why she felt compelled to try to figure out a solution to this. Because she felt like the airmen weren’t getting the service that they needed from her.
Walkey: Jennifer, would you introduce a character that you talked to for this story?
Kocher: Yeah. One that sticks with me in a compelling way is Marilyn Burden, and she is one of the few people who did not have her own EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] claim. She was unique in that she had also worked as the IG at one point, which is a person who investigates internal complaints. And she’d been a SARC, which is a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator. And she said she had seen kind of both sides of this, and her frustration was just palpable.
You know, she was just very upset and she cares deeply. She’s still in the military. She’s in a different state now. She left the Wyoming guard. She went to Colorado in a different unit, but she just cares very deeply about the people serving, and that was her impetus for coming forward in the first place. She wants to see the processes changed, and she was a person who then went to the governor and she actually got a meeting with him. And she just is tireless in her efforts. Even though she technically, well, none of them have anything to do with the Wyoming guard today, but they all still care a lot about the people still in it and that things are fixed.
Walkey: So I want to talk a little bit about how this situation changes moving forward. In my mind, there’s sort of the government [and] legislative aspects. But first, I kind of want to talk about more of the cultural aspect, which is obviously a harder issue to nail down. Can you talk a little bit about how you see this changing culturally in terms of the Wyoming National Guard being a more receptive place at the very minimum for those who feel that they’ve been discriminated against?
Kocher: It seems like the top leadership is that drives the bus as far as the culture. It sets the tone because, as Tennessee [Watson] talked about too, the structure is—it’s a unique structure in that they kind of govern themselves with minimal oversight, to put it very simply.
There was a point when they had one general and his name was General [Bradley] Swanson, and he came from National Guard headquarters, I believe, or I know he returned there. When he came in was when Jenny Rigg [her case] had just started. And he told her immediately, he said, ‘We have a problem. Let’s get training.’ He gave her everything she needed. He stepped out of her way and said, ‘You tell me what needs to happen?’ And there were a lot of trainings and a lot of—the internal culture, it was open. And that change is based on the various leadership. When a leader comes in, he or she brings their own particular subjective criteria and what they believe is important or not important.
Walkey: Tennessee, you mentioned the state legislature. I’m curious, what can they actually do to help a situation like this? And do you have a sense that that might happen moving forward this year?
Tennessee Watson: Yeah. I reached out to some national experts that are working on this issue in other states because Wyoming is not alone with this challenge. And some of the folks I talked to suggested simpler things like if the [state] legislature would require quarterly reports from the guard. How many complaints are we getting and what are you doing about them? How many of them are investigated? How many of them lead to some kind of consequence or punishment? And just being able to watch the flow-in of allegations and how they’re processed.
But of course, that’s not a solution in of itself. I know that Vermont tried something similar, where public officials admitted, ‘Yeah, we were getting those reports in our guard, but we weren’t necessarily looking at them.’ So of course, in addition to requiring reporting from the guard, it would have to be a priority on the part of the legislature to review that. They would need to see themselves as a body with the power to hold the Guard to account.
I mean, I think it’s also really important to acknowledge that, for folks that are civilians, they have access to civil litigation and that process. But for folks who are solely enlisted members in the military, they don’t have access to a civil legal process. So they really rely on the military justice system to deal with workplace harassment.
And I think that that’s one of the reasons that focusing on this seems so important because you can see in the case of Amanda Dykes and Jenny Rigg. Because they were civilian employees, they have the access to EEOC complaints and that sort of external process. But then Rachel Bennett, who’s a dual-status technician, she falls more in the camp—or at least the Guard makes the argument—that she falls more in the camp of an enlisted member. And she, you know, they’re arguing that she doesn’t have the right to the EEOC process. So, I think that’s the other thing for the state legislature that expresses a lot of concern about people who serve our country.
But they do have on their agenda for the November meeting of the committee for transportation, highways and the military that they will discuss these issues.
Walkey: This story shocked me. I think it shocked a lot of readers and listeners. I think it’s an example of journalism potentially being able to actually make some serious change in people’s lives. What’s been the reaction to the story after it dropped?
Kudelska: Well, first off, I guess there’s a third whistleblower that came out earlier this week, and she’s supposedly cited our reporting. She was able to hear that other women have experienced similar things, and it helped encourage her to come out and speak.
And from our sources, it sounds like there’s a lot of people who are coming up and speaking to them about things that they’ve experienced in the National Guard. And the legislature is supposedly paying attention. Supposedly legislature politicians are speaking to Rigg, to Marilyn Burden and to Rachel Bennet about their stories. So for now, it just seems like it’s getting the attention of people. And I think, to Tennessee’s point, we kind of just have to wait until November to really see what, if anything, politicians will do.
Walkey: I’m just curious, had any of you reported on anything remotely like this before? I’m just curious what it was like reporting on something that to me was just so sad and so serious as well.
Watson: I’ve done reporting like this before. I think there’s similarities between this story about the guard and reporting that I’ve done about campus sexual assaults. It also reminds me of issues faced by Native American communities in that, in all three of those examples, whether it’s campus sexual assault, what’s happening with the National Guard or missing and murdered Indigenous people, perpetrators operate with impunity because of these jurisdictional issues. Sort of like, ‘Whose job is this? Not my job. It’s that person’s job.’ And a lot of like passing it around.
So yeah, it’s definitely challenging terrain. And I think it’s, you know, it’s challenging because, to me, the way not to tarnish your reputation is to do a good job and follow through when people say that they’re harmed. But I think there’s this inclination on the part of people in positions of power that they don’t even want to admit that it’s happening under their watch. And that feels like there needs to be a bigger cultural shift, which says, like, your reputation isn’t tarnished because it happens. It’s tarnished because of how you respond to it. And I think until we get to that place as a culture where we’re really clued into accountability and addressing harm and finding pathways to repair like people are going to be able to continue to get away with this stuff.
Walkey: Tennessee, Jennifer and Kamila, thank you so much for joining KHOL, and for talking about this reporting.