Sgt. Chad Wille thought he was doing the right thing.
In 2009, after learning that members of his Arizona National Guard recruiting battalion were shooting homeless people with paintballs and sexually abusing teenage cadets, he reported the misconduct.
Wille's fellow soldiers launched a harassment campaign against him with help from a civilian criminal. Wille's supervisors, instead of promptly verifying and punishing the rogue behavior, launched investigations of him for allegedly violating the chain of command.
After more than a decade of retaliation, blocked promotions and accusations, the soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan said he is finally giving up. Wille faces discharge from the National Guard based on sworn statements from fellow soldiers who accused him of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment.
"I stood up for the law and Army values, and I have been paying for it ever since," Wille wrote in a whistleblower letter to the Department of Defense. "I joined the Army because I believe in this country and the Army's mission, and all I ask is to be treated with respect and dignity, and the Arizona National Guard has failed me."
Chad Wille is not alone in that lament.
Throughout the National Guard system, which consists of 54 independent state and territorial militias, soldiers and airmen have complained for decades about cultural corruption that stems from a lack of accountability and oversight.
Critics, as well as defenders, stress that most National Guard personnel maintain Army values and perform admirably when activated - especially those whose military assignments mirror their nonmilitary jobs. Guard soldiers and airmen who serve as civilian police and medical workers, for example, are viewed as high achievers when activated.
Yet since 2011, state Guards from Alaska to California to Delaware have been shaken by serious misconduct - scandals exposed by victims or whistleblowers who, in many cases, became targets of retaliation.
The National Guard welcomes and promotes: That is, until they report a sexual assault
'Most humiliating punishment imaginable': Black National Guardsman allegedly forced to wear heavy chain
Critics contend corrupt conduct and a lack of transparency are pervasive, betraying America's nearly 445,000 National Guard troops and shielding culprits as Guard units are more relied upon than ever before in the system's 385-year history.
"It's a structural deficit of accountability," said Dwight Stirling, a California National Guard attorney and director of the Center for Law and Military Policy. "What you get there is one thing - corruption."
In state after state, the accounts of wrongdoing followed by command cover-ups and retaliation form a mosaic.
•In Maryland, USA TODAY exposed the plight of a Black soldier in April who was forced to wear chains and submit to taunts during training.
The racist hazing prompted Eugene R. Fidell, an expert on military law at New York University Law School, to comment, "This case screams out for some remedy." Fidell said militias operate under a unique combination of flaws - lack of congressional oversight, little transparency and no uniform system for handling complaints.
•In Wisconsin, the state's Justice Department urged reforms after a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation revealed that 33 sexual assault cases had been mishandled by National Guard leaders who failed to properly investigate or hold perpetrators accountable. Thursday, the newspaper published a report that Guard leaders and lawmakers have failed to keep pace with the greater mental health burden facing the soldiers.
•In Vermont, residents have been subjected to three years of news reports on sexual abuse, favoritism, fraud, retaliation and other corruption. Among the episodes: The state's F-16 wing commander was removed after he allegedly flew a fighter jet to Washington for a tryst with a female colonel. The whistleblower who reported that misconduct was accused of making improper threats because he warned superiors he would notify Congress if they did not take appropriate action.
•In Arkansas, command climate surveys done in National Guard units identified concerns about toxic leadership, racism, sexual harassment and stress. Though some personnel praised the organization, others expressed bitter disappointment.
"I am no longer proud to wear the uniform," one respondent wrote. "The Arkansas national guard is one of the most corrupt organizations I have ever seen. The best part about being in the Arkansas national guard will be leaving the Arkansas national guard."
Though individual controversies and complaints may not be connected, the sheer volume of wrongdoing raises questions about National Guard integrity and culture. Those questions are hard to definitively answer because the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau refuses to divulge records on misconduct.
For this story, USA TODAY sought data on inspector general reports, court-martial cases, administrative discharges, command climate surveys, Article 15 investigations, equal opportunity probes and other actions that would shed light on state military operations.
The National Guard Bureau, which ceased publication of annual reports several years ago, said it would have no response to a Freedom of Information Act request until June 2023. The newspaper filed suit for those records.
History repeats itself
In 2001, USA TODAY published a series titled "Tarnished Guardians," exposing nationwide dysfunction and scandals that had enveloped National Guard commanders for more than a decade.
"Much of the misconduct has gone unpunished as governors, state legislatures and members of Congress look the other way and Pentagon investigators are powerless to root out the problems," the article noted.
Guard leaders committed serious wrongdoing at twice the rate of generals in the regular Army and Air Force. Thousands of Guard soldiers were "ghosts" who collected pay without attending drills. Cronyism, fraternization, fraud and other misconduct were widespread.
"Together, they raise questions about the quality of some of the Guard's top leaders and the political spoils system under which many are selected," the article concluded. "However, the full extent of the abuses never may be made public because the Pentagon has refused to allow open access to its investigative reports."
Two decades later, as the National Guard performs more missions than ever, the storyline appears unchanged.
In a report last year, the Military Times described the National Guard as "an organization struggling to hold its people accountable."
John Haramalis, a retired colonel and former director of the National Guard Association of California, said state leaders typically bury scandals by orchestrating sham investigations or targeting whistleblowers and victims instead of perpetrators. "They will hand-select the investigators, so they achieve the desired outcome," Haramalis said.
As a result, he said, good personnel either stay silent or quit when they encounter corruption, and the National Guard's command climate is sabotaged. "It's bad for readiness. It's bad for unit morale. It's bad for cohesion," he said.
Chaos in California
California's Guard has been through so many misconduct scandals and leadership purges in the past decade that lawmakers adopted strict standards in 2019 for how complaints are handled by the state Guard's inspector general.
The incidents ranged from fraud, sexual harassment and retaliation to alleged plans to use a fighter jet to terrorize civilian protesters.
Among the examples:
In 2010, federal investigators determined that California Guard personnel had ripped off about $100 million over many years, fraudulently collecting loans and bonuses.
In 2015, Staff Sgt. Jennifer Pineda discovered that someone had urinated in her boots at the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno - a relatively petty event that triggered more serious misconduct. Pineda's boss informed her an investigation failed to identify the perpetrator. The Los Angeles Times reported that supervisor had been among personnel drinking in a nearby breakroom when the incident occurred. Other officers, who alleged that evidence had been destroyed, became targets of harassment.
After media exposed other incidents of racism, sexism and cover-ups, California's Air Guard commander, Maj. Gen. Clay Garrison, was dismissed.
This year, the Times reported that an F-15 fighter jet had been readied in early 2020 to disrupt potential civilian protests during COVID-19 lockdowns. Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, the state adjutant general, labeled that report "fiction" but soon thereafter forced the resignation of Maj. Gen. Gregory Jones, his top Air Guard officer.
Jones told the Times that Baldwin fostered an unhealthy command climate and had "lost touch with reality." He claimed Baldwin sought to send hundreds of Guard members to quell California riots in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd even though the personnel lacked training in weapons and civil disturbances.
Baldwin declined comment. Via email, a California Guard spokesman said the Pineda case was investigated exhaustively, and allegations that a fighter jet was readied for use against civilians were "simply not true."
Federal tax dollars, state control
State militias are ubiquitous in America, which has nearly 3,300 National Guard installations in 2,700 communities. Contrary to common perceptions, they do not comprise a single organization but a hybrid.
Viewed one way, they are 54 independent units - one for each state, plus three territories and the District of Columbia. Yet when activated by the president, the "National Guard of the United States" becomes a single military reserve under federal authority.
State Guards serve under governors who appoint adjutants general - known as TAGs - to head each organization. (In Vermont, the Legislature elects the guard commander.)
The federal government generally purchases the military equipment - aircraft, weapons, vehicles - used by Guard units. Full-time Guard members are mostly U.S. employees working either as technicians or in the Active Guard Reserve. Even the state-employed weekend warriors become federalized when they are deployed or activated for national service.
To further complicate matters, states operate under their own codes of military justice with differing public records laws.
For example, in West Virginia, sexual assault and harassment are not listed as crimes under the state military code. New Jersey has no code at all and last updated regulations for Air and Army Guard members in 1983.
That means the status and rights of Guard members are in constant flux, adding to confusion about their oversight.
The strategic defense importance of militias cannot be overstated: The National Guard of the United States provides nearly half of the combat units of the total Army. It accounts for three-quarters of air defense interceptor forces and more than half of tactical air reconnaissance.
Funded by roughly $30 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars, state Guards are not under Pentagon control except when they have been federally activated. The president and Defense Department have limited authority over state Guard units and limited power to influence their discipline, justice systems or cultures.
Lobbying organizations for states and adjutants general contend that independence is precisely what the nation's founders intended. The "militia clauses" of the U.S. Constitution empower Congress to organize, arm and discipline state militias when they are in the service of the nation, but it leaves administration to governors when they are not activated.
Stirling, who serves as a reserve judge advocate in the California Guard, points to a clear pattern in Guard behavior flaps: Good soldiers report wrongdoing, then see their careers destroyed because the structure is predisposed to corruption.
"These are little fiefdoms that are independent of one another. … It becomes a matter of local politics," Stirling told USA TODAY. "This is all like a game in each state."
Stirling and other critics said the weekend warriors are not to blame, serving part-time roles while holding civilian jobs and performing admirably when called to active duty.
Full-time state Guard officers dwell in a culture distinct from the regular Army or Air Force. Those soldiers and airmen often remain in a single command for decades, socializing with one another for years while jockeying for advancement. Critics said entrenchment can fester into cronyism, fraternization and good-ol'-boy networks where leaders protect friends and use leverage against rivals. In that environment, military justice and integrity erode.
To be appointed adjutant general, Stirling said, a Guard officer typically must be in the right political party with the right connections and a determination to make the governor look good. When misconduct occurs, Stirling and others said, Guard officials resort to a standard playbook.
First, he said, they contain the controversy with carefully directed internal investigations and leak-prevention strategies. Then they discredit and retaliate against complainants.
Whistleblowers and abuse victims contend misconduct inquiries sometimes are preordained to squelch controversy or insulate leadership. In most cases, investigators are appointed and instructed by state Guard leaders who control their employment, promotions and military futures.
Outcomes are often secret. Perpetrators, even when found guilty, may not be held accountable. "What the TAG wants in each state is not to be embarrassed," Stirling said. "For scandals to never hit the newspapers."
If containment fails and a scandal goes public, the governor and legislature may demand answers. A second investigation may confirm the misconduct occurred but find that wrongdoing was isolated, reform steps have been taken and those responsible are being dealt with - although details often are secret under privacy constraints.
In state after state, victims and whistleblowers have reported that they were hit with phony accusations, unfair evaluations and unjust discipline. They tell of harassment via taunting, undesirable jobs, blocked promotions and other sabotage.
Wille, the Arizona soldier, said he's been subjected to nearly every one of those tactics. "There is no direct, explicit accountability for leadership," Stirling said. "It's all shot through with politics."
'Always ready, always there'
Amid sweeping examples of misconduct, Guard leaders and defenders pointed out that corrupt behavior can occur in any organization, and even a constellation of anecdotes is no proof of an organizational failure.
Retired Maj. Gen. Michael "Mick" McGuire, immediate past president of the National Guard Association of the United States, said the units operate in a system of checks and balances with top oversight from governors.
He said state Guards create a multiplier force for national defense with huge cost savings, and he stressed their establishment in the U.S. Constitution.
Supporters recognize that some Guard combat units may not meet readiness standards, but they insisted a dysfunctional culture is not to blame. Rather, they contended, two days of training each month (plus two weeks each summer) is not enough to hone skills with the complex equipment of modern warfare.
Matt Murphy, a National Guard Bureau spokesman, said the tightknit nature of state militias creates cohesion and ensures that commanders know which personnel are best suited for assignments. Though that familiarity can become toxic, he and McGuire said, breakdowns reflect failed leadership rather than an endemic problem.
"I believe misconduct is misconduct, and it occurs in every unit," said McGuire, who served eight years as Arizona's adjutant general before stepping down to run for U.S. Senate.
The Pentagon's National Guard Bureau, legally responsible for monitoring and assisting state militias, serves primarily as a fund distributor and Pentagon liaison. It has some financial leverage and may withdraw federal recognition of officers, but those tools are seldom used.
At a briefing on military sexual assaults, Maj. Gen. Eric Little, personnel director at the National Guard Bureau, said the agency provides guidance and resources to help states address misconduct, but it is not responsible for implementing changes.
Since the U.S. Selective Service draft ended in 1972, state Guards and reserves have become the fallback for an understaffed military. That role grew after 9/11 during the war on terrorism and invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. By June 2020, an all-time high of 120,000 Guard members were on active duty at the same time.
They were fighting abroad, helping deliver COVID-19 vaccines at home, keeping the peace at George Floyd demonstrations, combating California wildfires, cleaning up after hurricanes and conducting drug surveillance on the border. When insurrectionists tried to block Congress from certifying Joe Biden's win in the presidential election, 26,000 Guard members - some from every state - were mobilized to defend the Capitol during the inauguration.
Testifying to Congress in May, Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, described the units as "a lethal, cost-effective, dual-role operational force that provides strategic depth to the Army, Air Force and Space Force and responds to crises in our homeland."
During a news briefing in June, Hokanson repeatedly mentioned the organization's motto: "Always ready, always there." In the past 20 years, he said, the Guard has completely changed its function, evolving "from a Cold War strategic reserve to today's operational reserve."
For more than a century, the National Guard Bureau issued annual reports describing the agency's activities and expenditures. Even that limited accounting has ceased because bureau attorneys decided it is not required by law.
The Pentagon agency puts out an annual "Posture Statement" - a 32-page brochure that touts National Guard achievements and contains almost no information on management, expenditures or oversight.
Stirling and others suggested the Guard system is unregulated and opaque by design: There is no centralized record-keeping for discipline and accountability, making it difficult, if not impossible, to measure Guard conduct and performance.
Asked about the National Guard Bureau's responsibility for ensuring discipline in the state militias, spokesman Murphy said, "Those are muddy waters. … Ultimately, a governor can do what they want."
Murphy said money is not withheld from state Guards except where fraud occurs, and he knows of no funding cutoff in recent years.
He acknowledged that some regular Army personnel have negative views of state Guards as undisciplined and poorly trained, but he said those are outdated notions from World War II and Vietnam when some joined the Guard as a way to avoid the draft and combat,
Murphy said Guard units are more professional, and they see combat duty regularly. "We train as we fight," he said. "Are we ready? Absolutely! The question is, 'What for?'"
The Guard: 'A national treasure'
Efforts to reform or restructure the Guard system typically get stiff-armed by coalitions representing governors, adjutants general and other groups such as the National Guard Association of the United States.
In 2019, proposals in the National Defense Authorization Act would have given the National Guard Bureau greater control over funds allocated to state militias, and it would have empowered the president to withhold money from those violating federal laws or policies.
During a speech last year, Maj. Gen. Matt Quinn - then leader of the Adjutants General Association of the United States - ripped those proposals as an attempt to weaken "a national treasure."
"We, as a body, have got to get in front of these destructive legislative items," Quinn warned. "We cannot let a few who don't respect what we represent change us to what they believe we should be."
He said the proposed changes were stopped cold by lobbying organizations representing state Guards and governors. (Quinn, appointed as a Department of Veterans Affairs undersecretary, declined comment through an agency spokesman.)
Questions of military readiness
Guard defenders and critics agree on at least one point: It is impossible to measure whether state units are prone to misconduct or these scandals are merely examples of corrupt behavior that can occur in any large organization.
Units receive regular readiness evaluations internally and some auditing by the National Guard Bureau. Those undergoing pre-deployment training must receive validations from the Army indicating they've met standards. Because such assessments are classified, there is no way for the public to learn whether National Guard outfits are properly prepared - or whether they struggle when deployed.
Stephen Twitty, a retired lieutenant general who oversaw the First Army (which handles pre-deployment training of Guard members) from 2016 to 2018, said he became "a huge fan" of the state soldiers.
The Guard's part-time troops suffer from "skills atrophy" and require augmented training, Twitty said. But they should not be compared with active-duty soldiers who exercise daily, he said, and he saw no evidence that Guard readiness was undercut by command climate issues.
Chris Lambesis, a retired colonel who oversaw planning and operations for Arizona's Army National Guard, said he was drummed out after uncovering fraud and incompetence in combat training, testing and certification programs.
Lambesis, who served combat deployments in the regular Army as an airborne Ranger and infantry commander, said state Guard units are organizationally flawed and the culture leaves them unprepared for their missions.
To secure funding and get promotions, Lambesis said, National Guard leaders allow or condone falsification of Unit Status Readiness reports that are required quarterly and must meet standards for deployment.
Part of Lambesis' job was evaluating those reports, internal documents that are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. He said some soldiers who received credit for specialized weapons training were not even present when certifications were issued. He reported that physical fitness tests were waived or results were fabricated.
In one complaint during 2015, Lambesis alleged that leaders of the 1-185th Infantry Battalion "knowingly inputted fraudulent weapons qualification data" to justify a dangerous training exercise. Of 660 soldier certifications, he alleged, 130 were phony.
Months later, during live fire training with a mortar, Lambesis reported, a soldier suffered a permanent disability when he failed to remove his hand from the muzzle of the firing tube.
Lambesis said untrained and unfit personnel endanger themselves, their colleagues and the mission when they are deployed: "The story about an Arizona National Guard problem is replicated in every state that has combat arms."
After Lambesis filed complaints alleging readiness fraud and unethical leadership, he was investigated, labeled a "toxic" soldier and forced out of the Arizona Guard.
An 'untouchable' whistleblower?
Which brings the story back to Chad Wille, the Arizona soldier who reported in 2009 that colleagues took recruits on "bum hunts" with paintball guns.
Sergeants in Wille's unit turned to a convicted criminal named Donald Lee Scott in their campaign to discredit him and get him kicked out of the Guard.
After Wille became a whistleblower in 2009, Scott falsely accused him of molesting a teenage girl. He obtained confidential Army personnel records and posted flyers near Arizona Guard headquarters vilifying Wille. He allegedly called Wille, threatening to shoot him in the head.
With little assistance from Arizona Guard leaders, Wille - a former reserve cop - investigated with help from Phoenix police. Phone records and fingerprint evidence tied Scott to the smear campaign, and to Wille's colleagues.
(Though Scott had a felony record at the time, his most heinous crime - the shooting murder of a woman near Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1988 - wasn't detected until 30 years after it occurred. He was convicted in 2018 and is serving a life sentence, according to court and prison records.)
In 2012, after an Arizona Republic report on the state's militia culture, a National Guard Bureau inquiry verified cronyism, bullying, fraud, sexual misconduct, whistleblower reprisal and failures of leadership. The adjutant general retired under pressure. Reforms were promised.
Wille said the retaliation never stopped.
His own conduct came into question: In an Article 15 investigation in 2019, more than a dozen female and male soldiers signed detailed, sworn statements testifying that Wille sexually harassed them, sent pornographic emails, made racist remarks, berated colleagues and was insubordinate.
A sergeant who quit the Guard explained in her resignation letter that she could not cope with toxic conditions created by Wille and complained that he was "untouchable" because of his whistleblower history.
Wille, a certified equal opportunity practitioner, was found guilty and reprimanded. He contended the accusations were fabricated, he was not interviewed by the investigator and he was denied a court-martial trial to defend himself.
Arizona's adjutant general did not respond to an interview request on Wille's status and the milieu of misconduct that, no matter who is telling the truth, exemplifies entrenched dysfunction in the state organization.
Facing involuntary removal, Wille petitioned for a medical discharge based in part on stress induced by years of reprisal.
"They just keep screwing me around," he said. "I've given up on the Guard."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: National Guard has resisted reform, despite decade of corrupt conduct