Morgan Davis, who left the Kansas National Guard as a chief warrant officer 3 in 2020, says her persistence in reporting alleged misconduct in the Kansas Guard brought her military career to a premature end and contributed to development of her post-traumatic stress disorder. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Insomnia compelled Morgan Davis to seek refuge on a small backyard patio offering sanctuary from the downward spiral of her career in the Kansas Army National Guard.
On that November evening, the outdoor cocoon proved insufficient. Davis drove to a convenience store in Topeka where the mission was to slip in and out unrecognized, part of a concerted effort to adopt a lower-profile approach to living. As she exited the business, she bumped into a former Kansas Guard officer. Casual banter took a different tone by shifting to Davis’ military status.
“I just started shaking,” Davis said. “I can’t think. I can’t breathe. My mind just goes blank.”
The fractured bones of Davis’ 21-year Army career — reports, correspondence, testimony, photos, complaints, notes and emails — could fill boxes. The flesh of her military ordeal took shape during a review of those documents and through sporadic conversations and interviews beginning five years ago and intensifying after her retirement in 2020.
Davis said her life in uniform ended prematurely because of an unwillingness to look the other way at perceived wrongdoing in the Kansas Guard. She attempted to work within boundaries of the military system while filing reports or complaints ranging in subject from administrative corruption to sexual abuse to distortion of the promotion process. She raised alarms about personal issues as well as situations involving others in the Kansas Guard.
Substance of those allegations catapulted Davis into years of conflict with command staff that viewed complainants as irritating troublemakers ripe for expulsion.
Davis said her lonely campaign was aimed at bringing accountability and transparency to the insular Kansas Guard, especially actions of some high-ranking staff allied with then-Adjutant General Lee Tafanelli. For nine years, the general was responsible for training and readiness of 7,000 personnel in the Army and Air components of the Kansas Guard. He served as senior military adviser to Govs. Sam Brownback, Jeff Colyer and Laura Kelly before retiring in March 2020.
Davis’ struggle evolved to emphasize self-defense as individuals within the Kansas Guard retaliated against her, she said. Her best asset was technical expertise in personnel policy and procedure acquired in service of the Kansas Guard. She said she proceeded under threat of reassignment to a lesser position, loss of promotion and firing.
“It wasn’t ever about me until it was survival,” Davis said. “Everything that could have gone wrong with the process went wrong.”
The battle ended last year with her departure from the Kansas Guard and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs affirming her disability for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m still not over my breakup with the Army,” Davis said. “I have a hard time talking about it. When I see people from the military, period, it is extremely distressing. I see the uniform, and then the alarms start going off. I follow from their feet up to the face. Even if I don’t know them, it’s upsetting.”
Maj. Gen. David Weishaar, who has led the Kansas Guard since April 2020, wasn’t able to discuss personnel issues of current or former soldiers and airmen.
Weishaar said his commitment during 40 years of service was to foster a culture of dignity and respect and to compel troops to apply standards equally.
“That is what I try to convey across the force,” Weishaar said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re, in my case, a two-star general, or if you’re a one-striper. The expectation is the same. Do we have people do dumb things? Absolutely. Whatever goes on in the community is happening in the force.”
Weishaar said members of the Kansas Guard were expected to work daily to live up to military values and to better respond to societal problems of mental health, suicide, sexual abuse, gender-based harassment and other issues inevitably filtering into the armed forces. The Kansas Guard has adopted a series of programs to help members prevent, manage or overcome impediments to their service, he said.
Reform of military culture is a special challenge when only one-fourth of Kansas Guard employees work full-time and the part-timers report for duty as little as twice a month, the general said.
Davis was instigator of reports aimed at members of the Kansas Guard reaching back to 2008, when she accused an officer of administrative fraud, waste and abuse. In a subsequent matter, Davis was ordered to be part of an investigation into allegations that officers and enlisted personnel participated in a sex scandal. She understood sensitivity of that inquiry and her involvement in the case didn’t go unnoticed by peers, she said.
“I have a moral compass,” Davis said. “My right and wrong does not have a gray.”
In 2013, Davis said, Kansas Guard officers conspired to delay or block her from appearing before a promotion board necessary to climb the ladder to chief warrant officer 3. She responded by submitting a complaint alleging inappropriate influence on command. The Kansas Guard’s inspector general found elements of reprisal, she said, before forwarding her case to the U.S. Army.
Davis said the Kansas Guard answered by launching a commander’s inquiry accusing her of failure to properly process paperwork.
Davis said a Kansas Guard member confided her promotion process might proceed unfettered if her complaints stopped. She declined to retreat. Davis was eventually promoted.
The Army’s IG investigation of alleged retaliation against Davis dragged on for 4½ years, which made it one of the department’s longest-running cases. The resulting 60-page report was a disappointment to Davis. It either concluded allegations were unfounded or left issues unresolved because of lack of information, she said.
In 2016, prior to conclusion of the Army IG inquiry, Davis met with Kansas Guard officers to discuss physical problems with her hips and back. Convalescent leave was an option. Instead, she was handed a packet containing a notice of intent to involuntarily release her from full-time duty. The recommendation was to provide an honorable characterization of her military service, despite an assertion she “failed to complete assigned tasks.”
Removal from full-time National Guard duty for the first time since 2002 would have made it more difficult to earn retirement benefits available after 20 years of full-time service.
Davis said evidence relied upon to justify demotion to part-time status hinged on a distorted selection of emails and “unwarranted negative counseling statements” provided by Kansas Guard personnel, including some who should not have been involved in rating her job performance. She said stacking the deck with complicit evaluators was part of a Kansas Guard playbook to flush people out the service.
She turned to then-Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins, a Kansas Republican representing the 2nd District that includes Topeka. Davis sought help from Jenkins to speed completion of the U.S. Army inspector general’s analysis of alleged retaliation against Davis by the Kansas Guard. Davis requested aid with retraction of the involuntary separation action or affirmation of due process rights while she challenged the action.
Davis presented herself to Jenkins as a “federal whistleblower with an ongoing inquiry into reprisal” involving members of the Kansas Guard.
“I frequently witnessed what I believed to be inappropriate conduct,” Davis wrote in a document sent to Jenkins.
Davis said Jenkins’ office took steps to intervene in her case, but nothing decisive came of that attempt by Kansas Guard officials to sever her full-time status.
The Kansas Guard issued an order in 2017 recalling Davis from remote duty to an office position in the organization’s recruiting and retention command. By the end of that year, however, a medical board found Davis’ chronic health condition rendered her unfit for duty. The Veterans Administration directed her not to return to work. That prompted a stalemate not resolved until her retirement in 2020.
During the period from 2013 to 2015, a separate and much larger Kansas Guard investigation led by a one-star Air Guard general and an Army Guard lieutenant colonel produced compelling evidence of widespread malfeasance within the state’s military organization. The roster of confirmed offenses attributed to officers and enlisted personnel of the Kansas Guard included acts of racism, enlistment fraud, bullying, sexual assault, retaliation and promotion manipulation.
The Kansas Guard investigating officers discovered confidential information gathered during their inquiry was leaked to people under scrutiny. The material was used to target individuals cooperating with the case, investigators reported.
The Topeka Capital-Journal reported in 2017 that Brig. Gen. Scott Dold before retiring filed a final report on leadership shortcomings that concluded Tafanelli, the adjutant general, was responsible for systemic leadership problems within his command. Dold wrote in the report Kansas Guard leaders needed to place “soldier and airmen welfare and organizational needs before personal careerism and self-promotion.”
“The predominant culture of this command has difficulty balancing legal, moral and ethical facets of decision making when addressing poor performance, toxic leadership and substantiated wrongdoing,” Dold said.
In a response to the Capital-Journal’s disclosures, Tafanelli said the way Kansas Guard members answered the call to duty during war, disaster and emergency shouldn’t be overshadowed by a handful of corrupt colleagues.
“There are a few that will choose to act in an inappropriate manner and bring discredit to themselves and their service,” he said.
Grab you, anywhere
Davis said she was tormented by what she perceived as indifference among some in the Kansas Guard to sexual harassment and assault. In her experience, she said, too many men in the Kansas Guard were complicit in creation of hostile work environments for women.
“It is not unusual for a female to be in there and they just walk up and grab you. Anywhere,” Davis said.
Davis said a former Kansas Guard battalion commander, who she viewed as a friend, sexually assaulted her three years ago. A Veterans Affairs employee who offered to help Davis maneuver through the VA benefit system exposed himself to her, she said.
During a helicopter training assignment early in her Kansas Guard career, she said, a military doctor inappropriately penetrated her during a routine exam. Davis said she was sexually assaulted at age 18 by three men. It was after she enlisted, but before basic training.
Weishaar, the Kansas Guard’s top officer and adjutant general, said sexual assault and sexual harassment were a menace to the military and society at large.
“When it happens — not if, because it does happen — we’re going to take care of the victim,” he said.
Jody Cope, the Kansas Guard’s equal employment manager, said no one should accept the stereotype that sexual harassment was rampant in the Kansas Guard. The Kansas Guard’s annual reports tracking formal complaints of sexual harassment showed six were submitted in 2015, six in 2016 and two in 2017. Comparable information for subsequent years wasn’t released by the Kansas Guard.
Cope said the Kansas Guard had success resolving workplace conflicts with mediation. If allegations in an administrative complaint submitted to the Kansas Guard were substantiated, she said, there could be consequences.
“We’ve seen a really great increase over the last couple years of taking administrative action to address those,” Cope said.
Michelle Ferrer, sexual assault response coordinator for the Kansas Guard, said her office offered confidentiality to employees reporting sexual misconduct. The exception to this rule was when a person was viewed as a danger to others or likely to engage in self-harm, she said. If an individual decided against pursuit of a formal complaint, she said, the paperwork could be shredded.
“That helps people to feel comfortable they can come talk to us,” Ferrer said.
Potential sex crimes are referred to local law enforcement agencies because the Kansas Guard doesn’t have authority to proceed, said Maj. Jacob McElwee, the Kansas Guard’s judge advocate general.
Outcome of civilian criminal cases can influence military administrative actions involving Kansas Guard members. If the local prosecutor declined to file charges in a case, it’s possible the National Guard Bureau’s office of complex investigations could review allegations.
“Either way, we have an outside agency coming in and making sure that everything’s being followed,” McElwee said.
Weight of suicide
Davis said she could tick off names of Kansas Guard members who had taken their own life. She’s felt overwhelmed by the thought that she tried but failed to help some of the deceased. She also is convinced not enough was being done to honor former Kansas Guard members who bring an end to their lives.
She recalled a poignant moment during a meeting in which Kansas Guard officers asked her if dismissing a specific soldier from the force would cause him to commit suicide. She said she advised there was substantial risk. The soldier was kicked out. His suicide followed, she said.
In the past 6½ years, Kansas Guard officials said, 19 members of the Air or Army Guard in Kansas committed suicide. An average of nearly three suicides occurred annually from 2015 to the present. Fifteen of those people were in the Army Guard, while four were in the Air Guard.
The Kansas Guard doesn’t keep statistics on former Kansas Guard members who chose to commit suicide. Care and treatment of veterans with suicidal thoughts rests with the VA or private health professionals.
Terry Williams, an Air Guard colonel and the Kansas Guard’s state chaplain, said the organization’s training of people to recognize warning signs of trouble had improved in the past 15 years. Military chaplains have benefit of offering total confidentiality to people seeking assistance, he said. Statistics don’t reveal the number of men and women saved through these interventions, he said.
“I’ve done eight or nine funerals for suicides,” Williams said. “I’ve been at bedsides, gravesides, hospitals. My perspective encompasses all of that. I have a programmatic side, but its very personal to me, too.”
He recalled a January service with snow on the ground and a wind-chill index of 15 degrees below.
“I could hear the daughter cry above ‘Taps,’ ” said Williams, who has been in the Kansas Guard for 24 years and deployed overseas twice, including in 2009 to Iraq.
Angie Gabel, the 190th Air Refueling Wing’s director of psychological health, said she was a champion of ASIST, or Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. Hundreds involved with the Kansas Guard have completed ASIST training to learn how to talk with people suspected of thinking about or planning suicide, she said.
Problems with personal relationships, money, job stress, legal issues or communication barriers are often indicators of a person in crisis, she said.
Gabel said a persistent challenge was overcoming a belief among soldiers and airmen that admitting to mental health challenges automatically destroyed careers.
“We still have that mentality of, ‘If I say something my career is over, point blank, in the military.’ We are slowly changing that mindset. It’s not over. It’s not a career-ender,” Gabel said.
Davis, 39, opposed her exit from the Kansas Guard last year because she thought it was unfair and meant she would never qualify for retirement benefits more generous than disability compensation. The end came without pomp and circumstance in April 2020.
Termination of the employee-employer relationship allowed her to speak more freely about the citizen-soldier organization’s personnel issues. Many of those conversations were difficult for her. Others sparked a determination to keep fighting. She also shared a belief the mountain she was climbing could be too high, too far.
Davis said her forced exit was the consequence of her decisions to stare down the barrel of a Kansas Guard culture still anchored by a good-old-boy network. Reviewing threads of her Kansas Guard life suggests she was collateral damage of a toxic military environment, she said.
Administrative conflict that enveloped her felt like an organized effort to induce enough despair to drive her off, she said. The experience offered insight into factors contributing to the national plague of military suicide, she said.
“We’re expendable,” Davis said. “The decade has been really hard. The last five years has tried to kill me. It never had to be that way.”
It was not the way her career was to have evolved when she enlisted as a teenager and joined a UH-60 Blackhawk crew in 1999. She was the daughter of a highly decorated Army officer. She had risen in rank while completing a degree in criminal justice at Washburn University in 2006 and a master’s degree in business administration from Friends University in 2015.
She never deployed for combat despite volunteering to serve in hostile areas, but earned an Army commendation medal in 2010. She served more than a dozen years as a senior human resource officer in Kansas.
She said demise of her Army career failed to extinguish a conviction that military service provided rewarding experiences.
“I loved it. I loved the camaraderie. I loved taking care of soldiers. I loved learning new things,” Davis said. “I liked being able to obtain the knowledge and ability to do things — write policy or figure things out and then go to the boss: ‘OK, this is what you want. Here are your options.’ ”
After months of evaluation, the VA rated Davis as 100% disabled. It was an analysis based primarily on diagnosis of her PTSD. Medical records indicated she suffered anxiety and depression in addition to physical limitations.
Fighting to get better
Not quite middle-aged, Davis’ body and mind have been worn down. She has a new left hip. The plan to replace the right hip was postponed. Her right knee was operated on, but issues linger. She has dental woes from grinding her teeth.
Her future is clouded by realities of PTSD. Therapy was helpful at times and challenging in other moments, she said. Because of the pandemic, she unexpectedly discovered remote conversations with a therapist were easier than in-person discussions.
“I couldn’t cry in front of her,” Davis said. “I’d have my work face on. We weren’t getting to the root of any problems.”
Davis said her recovery had been impeded by reading or being told about ongoing controversy in the Kansas Guard. The intel reminded her there was no certainty about what her advocacy accomplished.
“I complained about people at the very top. Nobody wants to have anything to do with me,” Davis said. “In retrospect, I went through a lot more than I realized at the time. I would like an apology.”
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