WASHINGTON – Sgt. Bruce Weaver recalls in an instant the heft of the chain that the all-white trainers at the Maryland National Guard forced him to wear during training at officer candidate school.
For three days, Weaver, a Black soldier in the Maryland National Guard, hauled the chain – running, falling behind under the burden, being hectored by instructors. They claimed it would remind him to follow the chain of command.
He was stunned. It felt as if he'd been subjected to the kind of punishment used by enslavers, Weaver told USA TODAY.
"At first, my inclination was to drag it," Weaver recalled of the events five years ago. "They said, 'No, no. You wear it. That will keep you down.' That hit me. That hit me. I suppressed it and kept going. The next day, they said, 'You're still wearing this chain.' I told them this is inappropriate punishment. It's also messing with me psychologically. Chains mean something to Black people."
A USA TODAY investigation brings Weaver's previously unreported case to light as it nears resolution after years of delayed investigations and conflicting findings.
Weaver's case represents a wider problem for the National Guard whose units in each of the states, territories and District of Columbia operate with a great deal of autonomy and with little oversight of how various units respond to complaints of inappropriate conduct, such as allegations of racism, sexual harassment and assault. The National Guard Bureau in Washington, which referees appeals between state Guard units and troops, serves largely in an advisory role.
Eugene R. Fidell, an expert on military law and professor at New York University Law School, referred to a “perfect storm” of factors contributing to a case like Weaver's:
- Lack of oversight by Congress
- Little transparency into how the state and territorial Guard units operate
- Need for a uniform process for handling complaints of discrimination
“This case screams out for some remedy,” Fidell said.
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In a scathing report obtained by USA TODAY, the National Guard Bureau Office of Equity and Inclusion substantiated 11 complaints of discrimination and one of harassment lodged by Weaver and accused Maryland of violating Weaver's right to due process.
The Maryland National Guard has exonerated its personnel after several internal investigations and is appealing the bureau's decision. In his own harsh letter to the National Guard Bureau on April 8, Maj. Gen. Timothy Gowen, the Maryland National Guard's adjutant general, accused the bureau's Office of Equity and Inclusion of attacking the state with "erroneous and unsupported allegations." Gowen also said the office was acting as an advocate for Weaver and another Black Guardsman who filed a complaint, instead of its mandated role as a "neutral third party."
He called for a review of the office and corrective action.
"Based on my personal observations, I believe that the National Guard Bureau Military Equal Opportunity program and the offices that support it are not serving justice," Gowen wrote. "The program has fundamental flaws."
Racism in the US – and its military
Weaver’s case comes as the nation and military reckon with issues of race – and the National Guard, a confederation of state-run militias, continues to be thrust into the debate in highly visible ways.
In June, when racial justice demonstrations spread in the wake of George Floyd's death, states and the federal government deployed National Guard troops to city streets. In Washington, D.C., the Guard’s response to mostly peaceful protests received flak for heavy-handed tactics such as buzzing crowds with military helicopters.
In January, tens of thousands of Guardsmen from several states flooded the capital after insurrectionists – some carrying the Confederate Battle flag, the symbol of white supremacy – attempted to overturn the election. Several Guardsmen had to return home after authorities found reason to suspect them of sympathizing with white nationalists.
By law, custom and oath, Guardsmen are sworn to uphold the Constitution, including the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and to assemble peaceably. In reality, Guard troops are men and women who reflect a society grappling and at times riven by race. At times those high-minded ideals and ugly divisions conflict as Weaver claimed happened on Nov. 6, 2015, at the Delaware base where he trained.
"This is not the military service that I thought I’d do," Weaver said. "I don’t view myself as a civil rights activist. What I want is to commission as a data science officer and do something productive for my country."
‘Designed to single out and humiliate’
Weaver, 44, lives with his wife and young son outside of Washington, D.C., and has worked for the federal government for 12 years, including 11 at the Food and Drug Administration and one at the IRS. He has bachelor and master's degrees from the University of Maryland and also served in the Marine Reserve before joining the Maryland Army National Guard.
Accustomed to achievement, and raised to control his emotions, Weaver persisted through his punishment during the officer training despite simmering anger.
"It hurt my pride," he said. "After that, I felt humiliated."
Weaver had left a training site without prior authorization, a charge he disputes. For that, he received what a National Guard Bureau investigator called “the most humiliating punishment imaginable to use against an African American cadet."
A photo, taken by a classmate and forwarded to Weaver, shows a chain braided over his right shoulder and entwined around his wrist. The classmate was stunned by the scene, documented it and wanted Weaver to have proof, according to Weaver.
The bureau's investigator scoffed at the claim by the Maryland instructors that the chain represented the importance of the "chain of command," the military edict to follow orders of superiors.
"To conclude that such punishment, meted out by an all-white chain of command on a subordinate minority cadet to reinforce that the chain of command is in charge, is simply a mischaracterization of what happened," the report states.
Maryland National Guard officials denied race was a factor in the discipline. One of its investigations determined that the chain belonged to the Delaware National Guard, which had discontinued its use for discipline in about 2015.
Weaver says he was singled out.
"This punishment was designed to be humiliating on a cultural level as it mirrored slavery," Weaver wrote. "I have not seen this punishment before ... nor have I seen it since. It was uniquely designed to single out and humiliate."
‘The intent was not what you see’
The report points to two instructors for their treatment of Weaver: Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Carbaugh and Capt. Jacob Day.
"SFC Carbaugh knew precisely what the chain would mean to both Complainant and the other cadets. SFC Carbaugh wanted to teach Complainant a lesson about who was in charge and he used a heavy chain to accomplish this and the rest of the OCS (Officer Candidate School) Cadre let him," the Bureau report stated. "The allegation of discrete discrimination based on race or color is SUBSTANTIATED."
Carbaugh, now retired, said in an interview that Weaver had not been singled out because of his race. Instructors had required white and Black candidates to carry the chain, an ammunition can and a rock because Weaver and others had left another training site without proper authorization, Carbaugh said. The idea was to slow them down and drive home the lesson not to leave anybody behind.
Weaver did not have to wear the chain, Carbaugh said, but he did have to haul it.
"I can understand the optics of the picture look very bad," Carbaugh said. "However, the intent was not what you see in the picture."
Day declined to comment on the advice of military lawyers.
The National Guard Bureau found that Day and Carbaugh had singled out Weaver "and concluded he would not succeed based at least in part on his race," according to its report. The bureau also found that requiring Weaver "to wear a heavy chain was based on Complainant's race and the desire to humiliate Complainant and let him know the OCS chain of command was in control." There was also no evidence that the chain had been used by the Maryland National Guard before or since the incident involving Weaver, the National Guard Bureau report said.
Carbaugh said the characterization of his action in the National Guard Bureau report was inaccurate and that he had not been interviewed by its investigators about the incident.
"It's a damning picture, but it's not an accurate depiction of what happened that weekend," Carbaugh said.
The Maryland National Guard investigated and in a January 2020 memo stated that none of Weaver's allegations of discrimination could be substantiated and that he had offered no "concrete proof" of racial bias. The investigating officer, whose name is redacted, cited sworn statements that "suggest" Weaver did not believe the chain was used in a discriminatory way.
"I do not find there to be any intent for this item or action to be racist or discriminatory in any way," the officer wrote in the report.
"The Officer Candidate School program cannot replicate the true stress of combat, so both physical exertion and other stressing events are used to develop our future combat leaders," the memo said. "OCS candidates are required to carry the chain due to their failure to properly execute leadership responsibilities. Our Investigating Officer interviewed all Officer Candidates and there wasn’t one that felt the practice was racially motivated."
Weaver disputed the characterization by the Maryland National Guard that he had merely had to carry the chain.
"No other candidates had to wear the chain," he said.
The Maryland National Guard defended its investigation and is appealing parts of the decision made by the National Guard Bureau, said Maj. Kurt Rauschenberg, a spokesman for the Maryland National Guard.
"We are aware of the allegations made in this case, and we conducted a thorough investigation, which failed to substantiate these claims," Rauschenberg said in a statement. "We believe the investigation was properly conducted and are aware of the concerns raised by NGB. This case is currently before an NGB Hearing Examiner and will remain open until the examiner has made his final ruling. Until the process is complete, it would be improper to discuss any potential findings."
A chain’s heavy symbolism
Characterizations of what happened in 2015 are still disputed by the Maryland National Guard and the National Guard Bureau and Weaver.
Weaver filed a formal complaint in 2017, during his second attempt to complete the second of three phases of officer candidate school, he said. Maryland National Guard officials dropped him from the program for failing twice to pass the second phase of the school.
Nobody, however, denies that the heavy chain was used as punishment by an all-white group of instructors on a Black cadet.
A 2017 memo from the Maryland National Guard concedes that the chain had racist overtones and would no longer be used.
"The issues of racial inequities continue to be something that we as an Army must address," the memo stated. "To that end, the use of carrying a chain to reinforce the importance of the 'chain of command' is discontinued. While the investigating officer found no intent to mistreat or create a racially charged situation, this approach is something that all leaders agree leaves too much to personal interpretation."
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, said discrimination in the Guard and elsewhere is intolerable.
"With regards to the chain: In 2017, the governor's office was advised by the Guard that the matter was fully investigated and that the practice was discontinued," Ricci said. "No one, soldier or otherwise, should feel harassed or discriminated against."
Who decides who has the ‘ability to lead’?
To Weaver and the National Guard Bureau, racism is at the heart of the chain's use as discipline. The bureau's report noted that the instructors did not want Weaver to become an officer.
Weaver had completed the first phase of three in officer training, and his instructors were determined to force him out during the second phase, he said.
"The intent was to degrade," Weaver said. "To degrade and challenge my ability to lead. And that was successful."
Weaver's case has the attention of Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who chairs the Armed Services Committee panel that oversees the National Guard.
“Stories like these are painful reminders of how much work remains to make our military a safe and welcoming place for all service members,” Duckworth said. “As the Chair of the Airland Subcommittee, I am focused on rooting out these kinds of degrading and discriminatory incidents that harm our troop readiness and national security. We need greater diversity in the upper ranks of our military leaders, and we need leaders of all backgrounds, genders and races to send a clear message that they won’t tolerate discrimination of any kind.”
The Army continues to struggle to attract and promote Black officers to career fields deemed a prerequisite for future senior positions, USA TODAY reported last fall. While white service members make up 69% of active duty overall, they represent more than 87% of the highest ranked officers.
Those who have achieved leadership positions acknowledge their own struggles for equal treatment as Black officers.
Air Force Chief on his struggles as he takes job
Gen. Charles Brown, the Air Force chief of staff, shared publicly his reaction to Floyd's death last year.
"I'm thinking about how full I am with emotion, not just for George Floyd but the many African Americans who have suffered the same fate as George Floyd," Brown said. "I'm thinking about how my nomination provides some hope but also comes with a heavy burden. I can't fix centuries of racism in our country, nor can I fix decades of discrimination that may have impacted members of our Air Force."
Brown acknowledged that he was often the only African American in his squadron or the room.
While 15% of those serving the Army National Guard nationwide are Black, in Maryland that number is 34%. About 25% of its officer corps are people of color, including Black, Asian American and American Indian troops.
Yet at the time of Weaver's incident, the OCS instructors were all white.
One of the bureau's proposed remedies for Weaver is to allow him to rejoin officer candidate school. Weaver instead wants a direct commission as an officer, an action that would bypass officer candidate school. A provision in the National Defense Authorization Act in 2019 allows the military to appoint officers up to the rank of colonel if they have special skills. Weaver wants to serve as a data science officer.
"I don't think realistically I could go back to OCS in Maryland and get a fair shake," he said.
He's not alone.
‘Hostile work environment’
The National Guard Bureau's report on Weaver was followed closely by another blasting the Maryland National Guard for treatment of a Black soldier and the investigation of his case.
In that case, the Bureau harshly criticized Maryland's treatment of Chief Warrant Officer 3 George Ross, according to the document obtained by USA TODAY. The bureau's report concluded that "race was a factor" in a different white officer's decision to deny Ross' bid to join a cyber protection team. The bureau's finding was "based on the hostile work environment (the officer) created for minorities generally and Complainant in particular."
As in Weaver's case, the bureau pointed to a flawed mechanism to report discrimination and harassment, the military equal opportunity complaint process.
Ross filed his complaint in November 2017, and it should have been processed in six months.
"Like the previous case, this matter is only now through the formal stage," the report states. "This type of delay is inexcusable."
Maryland officials' delay in investigating Ross' harassment complaint and the "cumulative efforts by the State to hamper or influence the MEO (military equal opportunity) process in this matter are significant and suggests the State is trying to stack the deck against the complainant."
Among the bureau's proposed recommendations: Ross be awarded more than two years of back pay and have his attorney's fees paid and a reprimand issued to the officer it found at fault in his case.
Ross, through his attorney, declined to comment. Maryland is appealing the decision. In Gowen's letter, he accused the Bureau of bias in reviewing the case and findings not supported by facts.
Equal opportunity issues aren't restricted to the Maryland National Guard.
In a survey of other states, USA TODAY found that attendance in required equal opportunity training within the Ohio National Guard was attended by fewer than half its troops. In one document signed and dated December 2018, 41% of listed Ohio National Guard members attended the training. Attendance among senior leaders was not much different: 44%.
Ohio National Guard requires all units to conduct equal opportunity training every six months, but there is no mandatory participation requirement, said spokeswoman Stephanie Beougher. That training is "just one component to the Ohio National Guard (equal opportunity) program to provide a comprehensive effort that ensures fair treatment of all members and develops cohesion and readiness by eliminating discriminatory behaviors or practices," Beougher said. Other measures include new employee training and additional training available at a commander's request.
Officials at the National Guard Bureau's Office of Equity and Inclusion determined that Maryland officials "violated the due process rights" of Weaver and Ross in the way they processed their complaints, said Nahaku McFadden, a bureau spokesman, in a statement.
"The National Guard Bureau Equity and Inclusion office takes its role in the Military Equal Opportunity Program seriously," McFadden said. While their cases are being appealed, the bureau cannot comment further, she said.
The bureau proposed several remedial actions in Weaver's case and blasted Maryland officials for a shoddy investigation of Weaver's complaints that took years instead of months to complete.
"How the State processed this complaint is deeply troubling," the report states.
It noted that "every unusual instance just happened to occur in this matter," including the use of the chain, a poor evaluation of Weaver despite no negative reports on file, and the processing of his complaint, which was mandated to take no more than six months but stretched out over more than three years.
"From the looks of the (investigative report) assembled by the State, Complainant is the most unlucky person in the Maryland National Guard," the report's author concludes.
Nearing resolution – in one case
The bureau report criticized the Maryland National Guard for failing to track complaints from officer candidates about racial discrimination. It noted that previous classes of officer candidates had lodged military equal opportunity complaints "regarding how minority candidates were treated, yet the Maryland OCS Cadre remained all white with no minority representation."
Further, the report noted that personnel in neighboring states had made comments about how Maryland's all-white training cadre had treated minority personnel, "yet the State did not take such allegations seriously."
In 2021, its 17-member instructor cadre includes 10 white troops, six Black and one Hispanic member, according to the Maryland National Guard.
The report called on Maryland to review all military equal opportunity complaints since 2016 "to determine if there is a systemic problem with how instructors are treating minority candidates."
The senior official at the bureau charged with investigating Weaver's complaint substantiated several claims of discrimination and proposed remedies, said McFadden. The bureau plans to review responses from Weaver and Maryland and make a ruling within weeks.
Maryland could then request a review of the decision by a general officer assigned to the bureau, said Air Force Maj. Matt Murphy, a spokesman for the bureau. The official deciding on that request could recommend suspension or termination of federal funds for Maryland's National Guard. The bureau, however, does not have command authority over state National Guard units, which is reserved for state officials.
Rauschenberg, the Maryland National Guard spokesman, acknowledged problems with the military equal opportunity process but said Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, the adjutant general for Maryland at the time, had reviewed the claims and concluded they were unsubstantiated.
"Fundamental flaws exist in the process of National Guard Bureau’s Military Equal Opportunity program, causing confusion and delays between both the state and NGB levels," Rauschenberg said. "Although not perfect, the (Maryland National Guard) conducts investigations thoroughly while taking appropriate measures where positive change can be made within our force."
Michelle Bercovici, a partner at Alden Law Group in Washington, D.C., has advised Weaver as he represents himself in the appeal and called treatment of his case by the Maryland National Guard to be abhorrent. The National Guard Bureau has substantiated most of Weaver's claims, and he deserves to be an officer and have a chance to succeed without discrimination, she said.
"If this cannot happen for Bruce, then the whole system is entirely toothless and unjust," she said. "Next, I think that the Maryland National Guard needs to be held accountable for its failure to uphold anti-discrimination principles, which includes, but is in no way limited to, holding the responsible officers accountable and taking action to investigate and address what may be systemic issues of racism in the (officer candidate school) program."
Contributing: Ryan Miller