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Bill Walker’s role in bringing the National Guard sexual abuse story to light

Sometime last fall, two chaplains with Alaska’s National Guard knocked on independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker’s door. They had something to say about rampant sexual abuse in the Guard, and they didn’t know where else to go. They had tried everything else. They even broke ranks and went to Gov. Sean Parnell years before, in 2010. They waited. Nothing happened.

One of them knew Walker from church. He started telling Walker about what he knew and what has since been reported. Female Guard members were getting sexually assaulted and nobody seemed to be doing anything about it.

There’s been a nasty rumor going around that Walker knew about the sexual assaults, but that he also sat on the information. After I heard the rumor, I asked to speak with Walker about what happened.

While it’s true that Walker didn’t have an easy answer for the chaplains, it’s untrue that he didn’t do anything. He did what he knew how to do to get the information out to the public and to get the abuse to stop.

When the chaplains came to Walker, he was already a candidate for governor, and he knew that if he made an issue of it, he risked it turning into a political story, he said. And if that happened, there’s a chance that the story itself would be minimized.

“I was horrified,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. But I knew something had to be done.” So shortly after the chaplains left, he picked up the phone and called former Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Jim Whitaker for advice. He then flew up to Fairbanks to talk to Whitaker.

Whitaker, who confirmed Walker’s account, told him that he’d handle it and that he had a good relationship with a trusted reporter. Weeks later, the first story by McClatchy reporter Sean Cockerham appeared in the Anchorage Daily News about the abuses.

Whitaker confirmed that he called Cockerham and provided him information. As is standard policy with reporters, Cockerham would neither confirm nor deny that Whitaker was a source.

The story that Cockerham chronicled shocked many in the state. It said that at least 29 cases of alleged sexual assault have been reported to local law enforcement. As of October, no one had been charged or prosecuted.

It also said that the chaplains had come to Parnell in 2010—presumably the same ones who came to Walker three years later—to ask for help. According to the story, one member of the guard, Lt. Col. Ken Blalock had about 15 victims come to him. He also said that he told Parnell and the Anchorage Police about the issues, and got his “butt chewed” for going above his chain of command by the head of the Guard Gen. Tom Katkus.

Following the article, Katkus issued a statement and wrote a column in the ADN assuring the public that the Guard takes these issues seriously and that “the Anchorage Police Department and the Alaska State Troopers, was (sic) contacted in 21 cases, and for reasons specific to each case, these law enforcement agencies did not open investigations.”

Also following the article, the Alaska National Guard revealed that a dozen soldiers face administrative charges of sexual misconduct, including four sexual assault cases.

In late February, Gov. Parnell called on the federal government to help investigate the issue. He said that prior to the time, the information he received was too vague to call for action. However, in February, he talked to a “specific person who was able to make specific claims about what went wrong.” Within 24 hours, he went to the feds.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amandamcoyne@yahoo.com