House weighs military justice bill

The judiciary committee of the House of Representatives met Tuesday to discuss judicial reforms inspired by a series of savage sexual assaults in the Alaska National Guard.

The committee discussed House Bill 126, which would establish an Alaska Code of Military Justice, allowing members of the Alaska National Guard to be court-martialed and given dishonorable discharges from the service.

“It might surprise people to know the Alaska National Guard has never in its history given a dishonorable discharge … though it might have been warranted,” said National Guard Capt. Forrest Dunbar.

Dunbar explained that without a state code of military justice, the Alaska National Guard has few tools to punish small or severe offenses within its ranks.

“A code of military justice is similar to a criminal code, and it will give our commanders the ability to conduct courts martial and what is called nonjudicial punishement,” explained Dunbar, who in civilian life unsuccessfully ran for office as a Democrat against U.S. Rep. Don Young last year.

In October 2013, rumors of trouble in the Alaska National Guard surfaced in stories by former Anchorage Daily News reporter Sean Cockerham.

A subsequent investigation by the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations found Guard members and leaders had committed fraud and sexual assault. Guard rank-and-file said they faced a hostile response or none at all when attempting to report the problems.

The scandal was a contributing factor to the upset victory of independent Gov. Bill Walker over incumbent Republican Sean Parnell in 2014.

In Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage and chairwoman of the committee, asked whether having a code of justice would have prevented the scandal.

“Can you honestly say that with the former leadership with the Guard … that simply by having this bill that would have made a difference?” she asked. “I guess I don’t really see this bill, in and of itself, as — if you don’t have good leadership — making much of a difference.”

“We don’t believe this is a silver bullet,” Dunbar replied, but “we believe this is part of a solution.”

In addition to pushing the creation of the code, the Guard’s leadership has been replaced, and a new position — provost marshal — has been created to address internal problems.

Much of the discussion during Tuesday’s meeting — which lasted almost four hours — dealt with details about how the code will be implemented among National Guardsmen, who are on active duty only part of the year, and among volunteers of the Alaska State Defense Force, Alaska’s official militia.

Dunbar said the principal obstacle to establishing a code of conduct is “cost and resources.”

Documents from April estimate that implementing the code would cost the state about $189,000 per year.

“We are basically creating a system of military justice, and that’s not cheap,” he said. “I believe the command has decided, and I hope this Legislature agrees, that this is worth it.”

Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage and House Majority Leader, said she thinks so.

“Even though the cost would be increased, the cost to human lives will be decreased,” she said. “I think that’s something we can’t miss.”

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