Retired Brig. Gen. Jonathan Farnham’s 34-year ascent to the highest echelons of the Vermont National Guard came to an end this week when an anonymous letter prompted him to withdraw his candidacy to lead the 4000-member force .
The letter, first delivered to a Jericho state representative, raised troubling questions about how seriously senior officers took sexual assault allegations within the Guard. But given its anonymous — and highly sensitive — nature, it left Farnham seemingly unable to defend himself against a charge he said was false.
“While the anonymous allegations are untrue, they have proved a significant distraction to both the legislature and the Guard as they continue their important work on behalf of all Vermonters,” Farnham said Monday in a statement announcing he would no longer seek to lead the Guard. “I am unwilling to allow that distraction to continue.”
Farnham’s withdrawal radically recasts the race to replace former adjutant general Michael Dubie, who left the Guard last August to become deputy commander of the United States Northern Command.
Unlike any other state in the nation, Vermont chooses its top military leader not by gubernatorial appointment but by secret ballot in the Vermont legislature. In anticipation of the February 21 vote, Farnham and two other candidates — Air Guard Brig. Gen. Steven Cray and Army Guard Col. Darryl Ducharme — have been a constant presence in the Statehouse as they’ve lobbied lawmakers for support.
It was in that political arena that Farnham’s candidacy became imperiled.
Two weeks ago, Rep. George Till (D-Jericho) met with a constituent who claimed that Farnham and another senior officer failed to report or adequately address her allegation that a third high-ranking Guard member sexually assaulted her in December 2007.
The woman gave Till an unsigned, two-page letter outlining her story. Along with Rep. Helen Head (D-South Burlington), who chairs the House committee with jurisdiction over military affairs, Till initiated discussions with House Speaker Shap Smith and other legislative leaders about how to handle the situation.
“We took the allegations seriously,” Smith says. “We were trying to find a way to respect both the allegations and Gen. Farnham’s rights as well, which was not as easy as one might think.”
Both Farnham and the author of the letter met with Till and Head at the Statehouse last Wednesday to discuss the matter. Following those two separate conversations, Head says she decided to schedule a public hearing in her committee to let the letter writer tell her story and allow Farnham to respond to it. According to Head, the woman said she was willing to give up her anonymity in order to speak at the hearing.
That turned out to be unnecessary.
In response to several requests for comment over the course of a week, Farnham provided Seven Days with a written statement Monday refuting the allegations and declaring his intent to withdraw from consideration for the adjutant general post.
“In recent days, an anonymous person has circulated a letter raising concerns regarding the manner in which I and other Guard officers handled a personnel-related complaint that began over six years ago,” he wrote.
“I am prevented by Guard privacy provisions from addressing those concerns in detail. I can only say that I was not involved in the disposition of the matter that I suspect is referred to in the anonymous letter, and I was not in a position to influence that disposition.”
That does not square with the account set forth in the letter, which Seven Days obtained last week. While unable to independently confirm the allegations, Seven Days spoke with its writer, who provided some supporting documentation. Given the nature of the allegations, and Farnham’s decision to withdraw his candidacy, she asked to remain anonymous.
According to the letter, its writer was sexually assaulted in December 2007 by a senior Guard officer while she was being trained for a new job. Soon after, she informed then-Brig. Gen. Thomas Drew of the situation, and he informed Farnham, who was serving at the time as the Army Guard’s chief of staff.
“Although I was not personally ready to file a complaint, per Army Regulation and as senior leaders in the Vermont National Guard, BG Drew and BG Farnham had a responsibility and an obligation to report the incident and take action,” she wrote.
In the months that followed, the woman says she was repeatedly bullied and harassed by the perpetrator of the assault and his friends.
“Again, I promptly reported each incident to BG Farnham resulting in no intervention, action or protection,” she wrote.
A year after the assault took place, the letter writer says she decided to file a formal complaint, “hoping to prompt action that would stop the harassment and prevent future incidents.”
“Despite two separate formal investigations that supported my claim (they also discovered that my aggressor had a history of sexually preying on subordinates both in and out of state), my aggressor was ultimately only given a verbal reprimand and was reassigned,” she wrote. She further alleged that Farnham continued to advocate for the promotion of the alleged perpetrator as recently as July 2012.
When Seven Days first spoke with Farnham about the situation more than a week ago, he argued that the buck didn’t stop with him.
“I handled hundreds of personnel cases — many of them complex and sensitive — for both Maj. Gen. [Martha] Rainville and Gen. Dubie,” he said. “I wasn’t the last stop on these cases. I wasn’t the head of the Guard.”
He added, “People who were involved who were unsatisfied with the results had redress to push it to another level and seek out a different outcome, if that’s what was wanted.”
Drew, the other senior officer named in the letter, was appointed interim adjutant general and promoted to the rank of major general last August after Dubie left the Guard. He is not seeking election to the post.
In a statement to Seven Days, Drew said he could not address the allegations directly due to privacy concerns, writing, “It is very difficult to respond to an anonymous letter that was given to the legislature during the course of the race for adjutant general.”
He added, “All allegations of sexual misconduct are taken seriously, and we do our utmost to follow [Department of Defense] policies and regulations to ensure the safety and security of our personnel and their work environment.”
But if Farnham and Drew did, in fact, learn of the alleged sexual assault and failed to report it, they may well have been in violation of National Guard protocol.
According to Lt. Angela Lakey, who serves as the Vermont Guard’s sexual assault response coordinator (SARC), senior officers informed of an alleged assault are required to report it to the SARC and the judge advocate general within 24 hours. They must also inform civilian law enforcement officials, who have criminal jurisdiction over Guard-related matters.
According to the letter, none of that happened.
Asked if the Guard would revisit the matter to determine whether Farnham and Drew failed to follow the rules, Capt. Christopher Gookin, a Guard spokesman, said it would not.
“I have an anonymous letter. That’s what I have,” Gookin said. “If it was investigated, adjudicated and closed, it would be a closed matter.”
Closed or not, if a senior officer in the Vermont Guard sexually assaulted another Guard member, and other senior officers failed to immediately report the incident, as the letter alleges, could this indicate a broader problem within the institution?
“I wouldn’t necessarily jump to either one of those conclusions,” said Lakey. “I wouldn’t say the military has a better or worse prevalence or that they’re reported more or less often than the civilian side.”
A growing body of evidence suggests that’s not the case.
Last year, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta estimated that while the military receives reports of 3000 cases of sexual assault each year, the actual number is likely closer to 19,000. And while roughly one in six civilian women have been assaulted, the Department of Defense believes it’s one in three for military women.
The Vermont Guard acknowledges one reported sexual assault in 2010 and another in 2012, according to a chart officials provided to Seven Days. The year between — 2011 — saw nine sexual assaults reported to authorities.
Given that more than half the Vermont Guard was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, and assaults are reported elsewhere when soldiers are on active duty, that year’s figures may be understated.
Rep. Jean O’Sullivan (D-Burlington) has been trying to get sexual-assault numbers from the Guard since last spring, when she was surprised to learn that they are not regularly reported to the legislature or other state officials.
“I started looking into this and thought the two things we need to know is: We the legislature need to know how large the problem is and what the Guard is doing about it,” she said. “I’m not saying there is something going on in the Guard. I’m just looking at the objective reality of what’s going on in the four branches of service.”
Before the allegations concerning Farnham came to light, O’Sullivan drafted legislation requiring the Guard to divulge the number of sexual-assault reports it receives each year to the legislature.
“When you ask the military for numbers, they become real,” O’Sullivan said. “Any quantification changes the way it’s dealt with.”
Ironically, the coauthor of O’Sullivan’s bill was Till, the Jericho representative first contacted by the letter writer. And just weeks before he learned of the situation involving Farnham, Till and O’Sullivan had written to each of the candidates for adjutant general, asking them to “take a strong stance against sexual assault.”
As for the woman who wrote the anonymous letter, she’s not entirely convinced sexual assault — or a lack of reporting — is pervasive throughout the Guard.
Reached Monday evening after Farnham had announced his withdrawal from the race, she said, “While I don’t believe my story is indicative of a systemic problem, it is imperative for senior leaders to have zero tolerance for sexual harassment or abuse.”
The next adjutant general, she said, must lead “with integrity and fairness and create and maintain an environment of diversity and inclusion.” He should not, she said, “tolerate inappropriate acts that deter and undermine the trust of our 4000-plus-or-minus Vermont citizen soldiers and airmen.”
The print version of this article was headlined "General Dynamics".