Air Force whistleblower claims unit tried to discharge him - Task & Purpose

This Air Force master sergeant claimed his unit ignored sexual assault for years. He nearly lost his career because of it

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Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

When Jay Ellis learned his wing commander had called an all-hands meeting on Jan. 9, 2019, the Air Force master sergeant already knew why.

The day before, the Associated Press had reported that Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin was calling for an investigation into incidents of sexual assault and harassment at the 115th Security Forces Squadron, the Wisconsin National Guard unit where Ellis was assigned. Ellis, a 48-year-old military policeman who reported the issues to Baldwin in November, claiming senior leaders had done little in response, was now being portrayed in news articles as a whistleblower who had exposed an apparent cover-up that had gone on for nearly two decades.

That morning at Truax Field, a small guard base in Madison next to a civilian airport, Air Force Col. Eric Peterson addressed the article and vowed to take the allegations seriously, Ellis recalled. "We don't tolerate this kind of stuff," Peterson said. In the following days, Ellis received messages from other military members, some of whom had seen similar problems in their own units, praising him for doing the right thing.

"There are many people against you," an Army officer wrote Ellis. "By no means are you alone. ... I am immensely proud to know that I serve with individuals such as yourself."

A six-month investigation triggered by Ellis' complaint would later reveal a pattern of wrongdoing throughout the Wisconsin National Guard, leading to the resignation of its top officer in December 2019. But instead of being praised for doing the right thing, Ellis claims, some leaders retaliated against him, methodically built a paper trail, then tried to force him out of the Air Force before he could retire.

"For me, it's right or wrong," Ellis told Task & Purpose. "The only way to change it is to stand up and say something."

This account is based on interviews with Ellis, as well as sworn statements, military documents, and congressional correspondence. A Wisconsin National Guard official declined to answer specific questions on Ellis' case.

"We are in the midst of multiple ongoing investigations related to this matter," said Army Capt. Joe Trovato, a Guard spokesman. "It would be inappropriate for any member of the organization to comment on specifics due to the impact it could have on the integrity of those investigations."

* * *

By the time Ellis filed his complaint, he was an old hand who knew the ins and outs of military life. In 1990, Ellis joined the Air Force as a traditional guardsman, mostly working part-time on weekends for six years before leaving the guard to move out of state. But four years later, he returned to Wisconsin and was back in uniform.

The timing proved ominous. Days after going on full-time active guard reserve status, Ellis watched on television as a second plane hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. In Washington, terrorists flew another into the Pentagon. U.S. military bases around the world were sealed off and put on the highest alert. That evening, on Sept. 11, 2001, Ellis and his fellow airmen were manning the perimeter of their Wisconsin base, weapons ready, hoping a follow-on attack wouldn't come.

"It was surreal," Ellis recalled.

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Ellis (right) in Oman in 2002Courtesy photo

Sixteen years later, Ellis was a seasoned enlisted leader and a mentor to junior airmen. He was viewed as a sounding board for some around the 115th, which brought him into contact with younger service members seeking advice, he recalled. A handful confided they had been sexually assaulted or harassed.

Ellis urged victims to report their problems to their superiors or go the inspector general. "My intention was to help them," he said. But they were hesitant, afraid of reprisal. One feared losing her job.

"She was probably right," Ellis said in hindsight.

In an Oct. 2018 complaint to the base inspector general and a letter to Sen. Tammy Baldwin the following month, Ellis said he had learned that two junior female airmen had claimed a "sexually inappropriate incident" had occurred during a 2002 training exercise in Nevada involving a number of male non-commissioned officers. Frustrated by the lack of action, one of the women who told Ellis of the incident decided to leave the military altogether, he wrote.

"I do not have the details of what happened," Ellis wrote in his letter to Baldwin. "But I do know that the incident was covered up at the unit level."

In 2008, Ellis continued, women in the unit reported that a male technical sergeant had sexually harassed them, while others claimed they were sexually assaulted. Though the sergeant was not named in Ellis' complaint, the women claimed he had made inappropriate remarks, attempted to kiss one woman, and had choked another.

"Within a few months of the incident the male in question was promoted to ," Ellis wrote to Baldwin. "At least three of the women involved voluntarily ended their Air Force careers over the incident and subsequent cover up."

There seemed to be a pattern to Ellis' claims, which included allegations of additional incidents in 2008 and a more recent case that occurred between 2016 and 2017. As before, the female victim in the most recent alleged incident left the unit after nothing was done, Ellis said.

"The leadership was so resistant," Ellis told Task & Purpose. "They didn't want to look at it."

That changed with Ellis' letter. Although he had mentioned bullying, manipulation, nepotism, and unprofessional behavior on the part of senior leadership in the 115th, "the most egregious," Ellis wrote, "are the occurrences and subsequent covering up of multiple sexual assault and harassment incidents."

"I am asking for someone, anyone, to further investigate what has been happening," he pleaded. "This unit is made up of professional and dedicated people who want to serve their community and their country ... all deserve to be treated accordingly."

Months later, Ellis would ask for an investigation into how he was mistreated, too. He had tried to help victims of what he believed was a toxic leadership culture. Soon Ellis would become a victim himself.

* * *

Ellis didn't expect to become the story. All he wanted was to pass on the stories of victims who had been ignored by their leaders in the hopes that something would be done about it.

He admits now he was probably naive. "I miscalculated," Ellis said.

About a week after filing a complaint with the base inspector general, Ellis recalled being in the office of the medical commander on base, being aggressively questioned about his personal medical history.

During the conversation, Ellis wrote in a sworn statement in July, the commander had told him there was no sanctuary for medical issues and Ellis could be in jeopardy of being medically-separated.

"This came out of nowhere," Ellis wrote, adding that he believed it was the start of an effort to get rid of him. "She blindsided me," he later recalled.

The commander denied those questions had anything to do with the IG complaint, according to Ellis, though he couldn't help but be suspicious of the timing. Then he met with Col. Matthew Eakins, the mission support group commander of the 115th Fighter Wing. Eakins, standing behind a desk in his office that overlooks the base, said that since he had filed a complaint alleging wrongdoing by his commanding officer, Maj. Kristin Oliver, Eakins would take over as his boss in order to protect him as military investigators did their work.

At the time, Eakins downplayed questions about Ellis' medical history, the master sergeant recalled. The senior officer assured Ellis he had his back. "I gave him the benefit of the doubt," Ellis said.

But reflecting on it now, Ellis believes his past medical history, along with minor health concerns raised after the complaint, were used against him in the ensuing months. (Eakins declined to comment to Task & Purpose).

After complaining of minor foot pain, a civilian doctor gave him a note saying he could carry out all his duties, but could stand for no more than eight hours at a time. That condition was later used as the basis to send Ellis to a medical retirement board, military documents show.

Then, after Ellis was prescribed medication for a separate issue in December, he was placed on "do not arm" status, a precautionary measure not uncommon for security forces personnel who need to be clear-minded in order to carry a weapon.

Still, Ellis was worried.

"If you're in security forces, you have to carry a gun," he explained.

Despite arguing against having his weapon taken away, Ellis relented after being told it would only be for a few months.

"They told me it was only temporary," Ellis said. "[But] I gave them an in."

On the last week of December 2018, Ellis was restricted from carrying a weapon. The restriction remains in place to this day.

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* * *

In January 2019, soon after the wing commander had committed to taking a hard look at Ellis' allegations, Col. Eakins again pulled Ellis into his office.

Eakins suggested that Ellis be moved out of security forces temporarily as the investigation continued. "I trusted him," Ellis wrote in a sworn statement in July, explaining that he was pitched the move as a way to avoid reprisal from members of the unit he had reported on.

Months later, after being moved to the 115th Operations Squadron and assigned administrative tasks, Ellis got a call from a former colleague telling him he needed to clear out his locker. Then later, Ellis recalled, his name was removed from the access list for a secure facility on base, despite others being deployed away for months who would remain on the rolls.

"I know when something is weird," Ellis told Task & Purpose, speaking from years of military experience. It seemed, according to Ellis, like his unit was slowly trying to make him look bad, similar to how a corporation might build a paper trail before firing an employee.

"These things sound petty or insignificant, but they are perfect examples of the subtle ways that I am made to feel diminished and less important," Ellis wrote in a sworn statement. "This is toxic, passive aggressive behavior, and definitely reprisal."

It's not yet clear whether the Air Force agrees with Ellis' assessment; a separate investigation remains ongoing.

But on Dec. 9, the National Guard Bureau's Office of Complex Investigations publicly released its report — triggered by Ellis' complaint — that found widespread problems with how the Wisconsin National Guard had handled sexual misconduct. The problems went far beyond just Ellis' unit in southern Wisconsin.

What investigators found was astonishing.

After a thorough review that included base visits and dozens of interviews with witnesses and victims, the investigative team's report detailed "numerous deficiencies … that compromised the quality, accuracy, and legality of the investigations" carried out by the Wisconsin National Guard. Their report noted the Guard was in fact "non-compliant" with federal law on how it was handling allegations of sexual misconduct.

In some cases, the report noted, the Guard had enlisted sexual assault response coordinators, who advocate for victims, to investigate the allegations themselves. The move, the report explained, meant that individuals accused of crimes could argue investigations were biased against them if they were ever taken to trial.

"I definitely think the potential is definitely there for ... a major conflict of interest," the state's top coordinator told investigators.

According to the report, some victims were even given a copy of the investigations of their sexual assaults — which substantiated their allegations — only to later find their leadership had disagreed with an investigator's conclusions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report noted in its findings and recommendations that there was a general perception the Guard's top general and other senior leaders "do not hold offenders accountable."

"Our Wisconsin National Guard service members deserve leadership of unmatched integrity and a work environment free of sexual assault, harassment and the fear of retaliation," Sen. Tammy Baldwin said in a statement on Monday regarding the report. "This National Guard Bureau report makes clear they have received neither."

In response, Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, the Wisconsin National Guard's top officer, will resign from his post at the end of the month. His assistant officer, Brig. Gen. Gary Ebben, will step into the role until a permanent successor is named.

The investigation and the resignation of the Wisconsin National Guard's adjutant general seem to suggest that Ellis was right to report the problems he had uncovered. And yet, until last week, the master sergeant was dangerously close to being kicked out of the service, after being pushed into a medical retirement board by the colonel who claimed he would protect him from reprisal.

Indeed, in an email sent to Ellis on May 8, Col. Eakins attached a document Ellis was required to sign. Ellis looked at the top. "COMMANDER'S IMPACT STATEMENT FOR MEDICAL EVALUATION BOARD" the document read, in large block letters. Eakins wanted him gone.

"I realized he was involved in all of it," Ellis told Task & Purpose.

* * *

When Ellis read the two-page document, he immediately disagreed with what Eakins had written. Eakins said he could not run "at least 100 yards to take cover," an apparent falsehood, Ellis noted, that Eakins removed in an updated version of the form. Both versions said Ellis had been assigned to administrative duty because of his "work hour restriction," though the move to administrative duty, according to Ellis, was to keep him away from a toxic work environment.

Ellis called his civilian doctor. His foot had been getting better, he told her. Perhaps, Ellis believed, he could stop the medical separation process before it started. "His symptoms have improved and he feels he can return to work without restrictions," the doctor wrote in a letter Ellis then brought to his chain of command. "I agree that he can return to work without restrictions."

The doctor's letter, dated May 14, was dismissed out of hand the following day. Col. Brad Meyers, chief of aerospace medicine at the 115th Medical Group, wrote in a memo that since Ellis' doctor had not actually seen him recently, his medical status should not change. "His symptoms have improved but not resolved," Meyers wrote, calling the foot issue a "chronic condition." (Ironically, Ellis told Task & Purpose that Col. Meyers had never met with him, either).

"[It] could worsen if restrictions are lifted," Meyers added. He recommended Ellis' duty restrictions remain in place until an initial review prior to the medical board process had been finished.

On May 16, Ellis received an updated commander's impact form from Eakins. The box for "do not retain" was checked. In the remarks, Eakins wrote that Ellis could not perform all his duties at home or on deployment "due to his current restrictions."

In remarks at the bottom, Ellis noted his disagreement: "The restrictions were only temporary and I am working to get them lifted at this time," Ellis wrote, adding that he did not require ongoing care that would be an issue overseas. "I can and am eager to return to full duty and will be fully worldwide deployable."

Although Capt. Joe Trovato, the Wisconsin National Guard spokesman, declined to comment on the specifics of Ellis' case, he told Task & Purpose in a November email that, "as a matter of general context, medical evaluation boards are an established and wholly independent process that occur and fall outside the chain of command. They are specifically set up in a way so the chain of command does not influence the outcome, and their purpose is to evaluate medical fitness for duty."

That's not entirely accurate. While medical evaluation boards largely focus on clinical records and physical examinations, they also review a commander's impact statement, which, according to Air Force guidelines, documents "the impact an Airman's condition has on the mission."

It was just the start, but to Ellis, it seemed like it was all over.

* * *

When we first spoke in mid-November of 2019, Ellis was well into the process of being medical separated.

After Ellis' files had left Truax Field in Wisconsin, they sailed through a preliminary screening, called Deployment Availability Working Group, at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. Then in September, three military officers reviewed the files, Eakins' statement among them, before crafting an additional document that advanced Ellis onto the next stage. The medical board report the trio signed, branding Ellis as "potentially unfit," was then transmitted to the Air Force Personnel Center, a two-story building at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, where roughly 2,400 military and civilian personnel chronicle the bureaucratic lives of some 500,000 airmen, retirees, and their families.

There in San Antonio under the center's Spanish-styled roof, an informal physical evaluation board would later be convened. Amid a chorus of ringing telephones and the staccato of computer keyboards, at least two more personnel would review the case file of Ellis, Jay A., MSG. He would not be present.

Ellis was frustrated.

By then, his civilian doctor had conducted a physical examination and had determined he no longer required restrictions at work, according to a June 12 letter viewed by Task & Purpose. The doctor also wrote that there was "no evidence" of a chronic condition. But it was too late. Much like a passenger trying to stop a runaway train, it seemed Ellis could do little to prevent the crash.

"It's been tough, but it had to come out," Ellis told Task & Purpose. "I don't regret it."

There was more bad news. Although Ellis had submitted a separate inspector general complaint alleging retaliation, in late November Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said she would not do anything to halt the discharge process (a spokesman, however, said Barrett would not approve a discharge until the investigation was complete).

Behind the scenes, perhaps a half dozen Air Force personnel had scrutinized Ellis' medical and personnel records and had nudged the case along, oblivious to what had transpired before the file landed on their desk.

On Nov. 1, the board recommended Ellis for separation. In their remarks, they noted Ellis' issue went back to 2013, though treatment had helped. Still, a 2016 ultrasound, they wrote, had revealed a chronic condition, and he was seen by medical personnel in July and November of 2018.

However, his most recent orthopedic note from June 2019, according to the remarks, showed that "his pain was controlled and no duty restrictions were recommended." They also considered Ellis' comments in rebuttal letters and other documents. Regardless, his commander had said Ellis was "unable to function" in his role and did not recommend retention.

That was it. The next paragraph explained that Ellis was unfit for military service. Their recommendation: permanent retirement. Ellis appealed.

A week after Thanksgiving, Ellis spoke on the phone with a lawyer at Randolph Air Force Base. The attorney, assigned free of charge by the Air Force to advocate for troops during appeals, asked Ellis what he wanted to do. I want to stay on duty, he said.

The lawyer's advice was straightforward: You'll need another letter of support from your civilian doctor. No problem, Ellis thought. You'll need to show you can pass a physical fitness test. Easy. Then the attorney suggested his commander write him a letter of support. "Of course I don't have that," Ellis recalled later.

The attorney was blunt about Ellis' chances. "Even if you had a perfect case, your chances are three percent," Ellis recalled the attorney telling him (the service claims the average is slightly higher).

"And you don't have a perfect case."

On Dec. 3, Ellis and the attorney walked into a small, sparsely decorated room at Randolph. They stepped toward two chairs in the back of the room, tucked under a black glass table placed opposite another that was about double its size. In front of them were three senior Air Force officers sitting behind laptop computers displaying the Ellis case file, waiting for the pair to take their seats.

The appeal began. Ellis' attorney told the officers his client wanted to be returned to duty. The officers then grilled Ellis, largely focusing on whether his medical issues would prevent him from continuing to serve. Ellis told them about the IG complaint, and claimed that much of the information in his file had been embellished. The most important meeting of Ellis' life was over in about an hour.

Ellis and the attorney walked outside. All they could do now was wait.

Back in Madison, Wisconsin two days later, Ellis' phone rang. It was his liaison officer, a service-appointed guide for airmen as they navigated the board process. "They have returned you to duty," she said. He had won.

"I was flabbergasted," Ellis told Task & Purpose. "I couldn't believe it." Still, in the back of his mind, Ellis thought, "what are they gonna do next?" (He can't retire until Dec. 1, 2020).

Ellis is relieved that he can continue serving the Air Force to which he's dedicated most of his adult life, and eagerly awaits the final report on his reprisal allegations from the inspector general. And he's amazed at how much attention his case has received.

"When I filed my complaint I was focused on my unit," Ellis told Task & Purpose. "I was not thinking about the rest of the state, or the country, or outside of the Air Force. All I wanted was for the stuff in my unit to change."

Ellis still thinks about the messages he received from service members more than a year ago. Soldiers and airmen at different bases in Wisconsin had praised him or told him their own stories. Others reached out from as far away as Florida, thanking him for standing up.

"It was really nice that I got that support, but at the same time, it was very eye opening," Ellis told Task & Purpose. "This is happening everywhere."