Views from Kansas: Questions for Kansas Guard

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

Members of the Kansas Army National Guard should be commended for their work defending our state and country.

But is the leadership of that guard operating at the same level as the guardsmen and women? It’s a question that lingers after explosive stories uncovered by The Topeka Capital-Journal in 2017, and one that has now been highlighted by the resignation of Capt. Tara Fields. Fields believes Guard leadership wasn’t taking suicides in the ranks seriously enough.

“We have to hold our organization accountable,” Fields told Capital-Journal reporter Katie Moore. “We are not doing right by our soldiers.”

Guard leadership responds by pointing out the difficulty of addressing mental health care among a 6,500-strong force of largely part-time personnel. There’s also the persistent stigma attached to receiving mental health treatment. A pilot project is underway, and all of the correct things are being said.

“The sooner we can identify that somebody has a problem, but more importantly that they realize they have a problem and want help, I’m very confident we have programs in place that can help them and their families deal with that situation and we continually improve the programs,” said Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli.

These are good words, and they describe good intentions. Yet the last time the state Guard was in the spotlight, in early 2017, we heard similar reassuring talk.

Back then, as reported by The Capital-Journal’s Tim Carpenter, reports of “toxic” leadership in the organization raised statewide concern. There were reports of racism, sexual assault and favoritism. After first declining to respond, the Guard put out the following statement from Tafanelli: “We take every allegation seriously, investigate it thoroughly and respond accordingly.”

In the aftermath of that story, we called for then-Gov. Sam Brownback, state lawmakers and Tafanelli to ask and answer tough questions about the Guard and the environment there. The men and women serving deserved no less.

Now that concerns about leadership have been raised again — about literally life and death matters — we renew that call, with added urgency.

What does Gov. Laura Kelly’s office think? Do lawmakers agree with suggestions from Fields for better tracking and increased support? What about embedding behavioral health officers in units? And are contractors being used to paper over gaps while being limited in the services they perform?

And perhaps most importantly, what does Guard leadership think? Will it once again say that all is well and proceeding according to plan, despite the voices of those inside who say otherwise? Will it put self-preservation first?

The answers are no less important now than they were two years ago.

— Originally published in The Topeka Capital-Journal

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