YAVORIV, UKRAINE – Among the dignitaries assembled in early October to formally send off a group of Wisconsin National Guard soldiers heading to Ukraine was the state’s top soldier.
Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general since 2007, always wished his soldiers well on their upcoming deployments and was there to welcome them home.
The 165 soldiers from the Camp Douglas-based headquarters of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team sat in rows of chairs at Volk Field and listened as Dunbar recounted the storied history of the “Red Arrow” Division.
“The Army has a mission to do in Europe and they’re calling upon the National Guard — and this particular unit, the Red Arrow — to go overseas and develop capacity with Ukraine,” Dunbar told the soldiers.
The soldiers were leaving for a one-year deployment to mentor Ukrainian military trainers at a combat training center in western Ukraine. They figured Dunbar would welcome them home when they’re scheduled to return in late August.
But that’s not going to happen.
Dunbar resigned in late December under pressure from Gov. Tony Evers after a report showed that the Wisconsin National Guard had for years botched investigations of sexual assault and harassment. The report also said the Guard had intentionally created its own internal system of investigating sex assault complaints to shield it from state law enforcement and federal regulators.
The 88-page report laid out in excruciating detail how poorly the Wisconsin National Guard treated sexual assault victims and how badly it mismanaged allegations of sexual assault and harassment.
The news shocked soldiers stationed here in Ukraine.
As soon as the unit’s commander Col. John Oakley heard the governor had asked for Dunbar’s resignation effective Dec. 31, he called a town hall meeting in one of the buildings on this sprawling base less than 15 miles from the Poland border.
“We talked about what it meant and the changes that would be coming,” Oakley said in an interview this month in his office. “Some people were shocked or surprised and others maybe not so much.”
Before learning of Dunbar’s resignation, Oakley had ordered an anonymous survey of his soldiers in Ukraine because he said he knew that around half were on their first overseas deployment and some might have difficulties fitting in or coping with being far from home for so long. The online survey was open for three weeks, which spanned the time before and after the announcements of the report and Dunbar’s resignation.
Oakley said there have been no allegations of sexual assault or harassment within the Ukraine unit.
He released the survey results and written answers to everyone in the unit so they could learn what others were thinking. Then he met with female soldiers — 27 of the 164 now serving in Ukraine are women — followed by a meeting with everyone.
“Some people are like, ‘Well, you’re bringing us in because we’re the problem.’ I was like, ‘No, I’m bringing you in because you have unique issues as women in a very male-oriented unit and I want you to have a small group that can talk about the things that are issues for you,’” said Oakley.
Several soldiers volunteered to take on extra roles on sensitive issues, including equal opportunity matters, sexual harassment and suicide prevention.
Sgt. Amanda Gorff volunteered to be the point person for suicide prevention training, and posters with her photo and contact information were placed around the buildings where Wisconsin soldiers are working.
The unit is too small to have its own mental health professional but soldiers who feel the need to talk to someone can seek counseling from the chaplain or a battle buddy, or can be put in touch by phone with U.S. military behavioral health officials elsewhere in Europe.
Gorff, who grew up in Freedom and graduated from Fox Valley Lutheran High School in 2013, is the first of her Korean War-veteran grandfather’s grandkids to join the military.
She noted that although the deployment to Ukraine is different from a combat posting, soldiers can still suffer from feelings of isolation.
“We don’t have to fear being shot at night and that’s a blessing. But we are thousands of miles away, away from home during holidays and birthdays,” said Gorff, whose husband is in the active duty military. “Just because we’re not in a war zone doesn’t mean we’re not on deployment.”