Guardsman blew whistle, then his career blew up
Twelve years after his father gave his life for the unit, a Suffolk man says his military career has been effectively shut down because he accused senior leaders of a local National Guard squadron of engaging in and tolerating sexual harassment.
At a time when the military services nationally are under unprecedented scrutiny for sexual harassment and abuse, Master Sgt. Dan Summerell says his story is a cautionary tale of the repercussions that can flow from standing up to such misconduct.
His treatment makes a mockery of the services' policy of intolerance for sexual misconduct, he said in an interview.
"They tell us if we see sexual harassment, we must come forward," he said. "I came forward and got beat to death."
Summerell's father, Staff Sgt. Richard Summerell, was one of 18 members of the Virginia Air National Guard's 203rd Red Horse Squadron who died in a military transport crash on March 3, 2001. The Virginia Beach-based guardsmen were en route home from a construction project in Florida when their plane went down in a Georgia cotton field.
The crash, which also killed three Florida guardsmen, was the deadliest peacetime aviation disaster in the history of the National Guard.
Dan Summerell, who was 28 at the time, had joined his father's unit the year before, transferring from the Army National Guard, which he joined out of high school.
Now 41, he says his Guard career is at a dead end because he spoke up for lower-ranking airmen to his superiors.
In August 2012, Summerell filed a complaint with the Virginia Guard's inspector general accusing the squadron's commander, Lt. Col. Peter Garner, of reprisal and intimidation flowing from an earlier complaint Summerell had made accusing Garner of sexually harassing a female member of the unit.
More than a year later, the complaint has not been resolved.
Garner announced his retirement and gave up command of the squadron in August. He is now employed by the Norfolk Public Works Department. He and a spokesman for the Virginia National Guard declined to discuss the matter, citing the ongoing investigation.
Summerell and eight other current and former members of the squadron, who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution, said in interviews that morale in the unit plummeted under Garner's leadership. They said the unit has suffered a high turnover rate as discontented guard members have been forced out or left voluntarily.
A new commander took charge of the squadron Oct. 1, and it is standard Air Force procedure to conduct a unit climate assessment within 120 days of a change of command, Brig. Gen. Wayne Wright, the Virginia Air National Guard's chief of staff, said in a statement.
"If the survey identifies any issues in the unit, the new commander will take appropriate action to address those issues," Wright said.
The 203rd finished a successful deployment to southwest Asia in 2011, completing more than 70 projects in seven countries, Wright said. In recent years, the unit received positive feedback for humanitarian missions in Virginia and elsewhere, he said.
Based at Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach, the 203rd is a 190-member construction and engineering squadron that has deployed three times to war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East over the past 10 years.
Summerell is a military policeman and combat arms instructor, a position that makes him responsible for the safety and security of his fellow airmen. His military duties mirror his civilian responsibilities: He works as a civilian police officer for the Navy and volunteers with the Portsmouth Police Department's auxiliary unit.
Summerell's complaints encompass a series of incidents over nearly four years.
During a training exercise in Florida in 2010, a female staff sergeant was carrying messages from a field phone to officers in a command tent. When someone suggested that she be stationed closer to the officers' table so she wouldn't have to walk so far, Garner replied in a loud voice: "I like to watch her walk away," according to a complaint Summerell filed later.
The female guardsman was clearly bothered by the remark, Summerell said, but when he suggested she lodge a complaint, she demurred, saying, "I don't want to be 'that girl.' "
Not wanting to rock the boat, Summerell said he, too, let the matter slide.
On a deployment to Afghanistan in 2011, Summerell said, the same female guardsman came to him in tears, saying she was being stalked by an active-duty airman who was stationed alongside the 203rd. The airman had sent her a disturbing email and had followed her to her barracks at dusk, repeatedly calling her name.
The Virginian-Pilot was unable to contact the female guardsman for this report, but Summerell's account was corroborated by several other members of the unit who had spoken with her.
This time, Summerell said, he felt obligated by his position as a military policeman to report the matter, so he went to Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Elliott, the senior enlisted guardsman in the unit, and described the situation.
According to Summerell's complaint, Elliott responded: "Stop stirring up trouble and starting rumors."
Summerell said he replied: "I'm not causing trouble. It's my job."
Elliott declined to comment for this report.
Shortly after that incident, Summerell said, he began suffering what he perceived as a series of recriminations for speaking up.
In May 2011, he was issued a letter of counseling by Elliott, admonishing him for insubordinate conduct and "infectious gossip and meddling." He says it was the first blemish in a military career now nearing 20 years.
In August 2011, he was issued a letter of reprimand by Garner for dereliction of duty because he failed to report an incident during the Afghanistan deployment in which an airman held a pistol to a fellow airman's head - an incident that Summerell said occurred months earlier while he was home on leave and of which he had no firsthand knowledge.
Summerell provided copies of his complaints and disciplinary records to The Pilot.
In May 2012, the female guardsman told Summerell she was leaving the Guard, saying she needed a fresh start.
That same month, Summerell filed a complaint with the unit's equal opportunity officer detailing the alleged harassment, including Garner's remark during the Florida exercise, the stalking incident in Afghanistan and Elliott's response. He says he was never told how the complaint was resolved.
Three months later, Summerell was transferred against his will to another unit, the Hampton-based 192nd Fighter Wing.
He says the transfer was a further reprisal for his whistle-blowing. "I feel that I am being persecuted because of the fact I tried to help my unit members," he wrote in his complaint to the inspector general.
Since then, Summerell said, he has received orders prohibiting him from carrying a weapon, and he faces an involuntary medical discharge - both based on his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. The diagnosis dates from 2008, between his second and third combat deployments. He takes a prescription sleep aid for insomnia - his only symptom, he says.
Summerell carries a weapon as a civilian policeman, but the military's restrictions mean he can no longer do the job he has performed for his career as a guardsman, he said.
When he reports for weekend duty, "I check in in the morning and go find someplace to sit," he said. "I can't do anything. My career is not only over, it's buried."
A recent Defense Department survey found that 62 percent of service members who report sexual misconduct experience some form of personal or professional retaliation, according to Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women's Action Network, a national support group.
"It's a huge problem," he said.
His organization is lobbying for legislation pending in Congress that would establish criminal penalties for retaliation and require inspectors general to investigate every complaint of retaliation that they receive.
Current and former members of the 203rd portrayed Summerell as a straight-arrow guardsman with a strong sense of justice. One compared him to a medieval knight.
"Dan is like a bulldog," said another. "He took on this fight because he thought it was the right thing to do. He's not too diplomatic.
"He won't back down, and he's suffered for it."
Summerell's complaint of reprisal will ultimately be resolved by the Pentagon's inspector general, according to a Virginia National Guard spokesman.
Summerell said he plans to fight the medical discharge. He knows his military career is effectively over but wants to be transferred back to the 203rd so he can retire from the unit his father died serving.
"Me and Pop, we were pretty tight," he said.
"It's an honor thing."