For two years, KHOU-TV’s Mark Greenblatt has been investigating and reporting allegations that top officials in the Texas National Guard have discriminated against women. These were top ranking, highly decorated women.
The TV station’s “Under Fire” investigation went beyond discrimination allegations to include widespread abuse of guard funds, which a female colonel had raised questions about. Eventually, the state’s governor stepped in and removed several top generals from power. One of the new generals put in their place, by the way, is a woman.
I asked Greenblatt and David Raziq, KHOU’s executive producer for investigations, some questions about the project. You can read our edited e-mail exchange below.
Al Tompkins: So how many stories did you guys produce?
Mark Greenblatt: A total of 11 so far. The first part of “Under Fire” aired in February of 2007. This month, we just aired our 11th part of the ongoing series. Our sense is that more parts could still develop depending on what happens with the multiple criminal investigations that we’re told continue to heat up.
How did this story begin?
Greenblatt: The story began with a simple phone call from a concerned mom who contacted me after a military-related source I had worked with in the past gave her my name as someone who could help. Her daughter had witnessed something disturbing at a Texas National Guard leadership camp.
Guard leaders had given away something called “The Vagisil Award” to a woman they wanted to silence into submission. The guard made the young woman parade around in front of top commanders with a trash bag around her shoulders and a pink tiara with a Vagisil label pasted on it.
How did this story unfold?
Greenblatt: We started calling around to other sources to check for other possible discrimination-related cases. Eventually, we stumbled upon a tip about a group of senior women officers in the Texas Guard who banded together to file a joint Congressional complaint, alleging they had all been forced out of serving their country.
One was a Bronze Star recipient. Another, a medical doctor educated at Johns Hopkins University. Yet another was a three-time national award winner in the military. It began to have “the feel” of something more systemic. So we began working with the military liaison to Representative Sheila Jackson Lee.
The top general in Texas promised an “independent” investigation publicly. But late in 2007, he would announce that “only one” of so many allegations had been held up. He wrote that down in a letter to Congress.
But something didn’t smell right to us. The Guard told a staffer for Rep. Jackson Lee that he couldn’t have a copy of the documents even though they came about because of the Congressional inquiry. The Texas Guard said he would have to personally drive to Austin, where he would only get one hour to read through 1,400 pages. And even then he was told he couldn’t make copies. It was an astounding demand to make of a Congressional staffer.
We filed a Freedom of Information Act Request for the entire investigation. We also asked the women to do the same. We filed our requests from the National Guard Bureau instead of the Texas National Guard. More than a year and a half later, the documents came back (heavily redacted). But the National Guard Bureau had left enough intact to let us clearly see that a brigadier general had actually substantiated many more allegations than what the Texas Guard had told Congress about.
Then, a surprise development: As we were making the three-hour drive to Austin from Houston to interview the top general in Texas about this alleged cover-up, we received another tip: That general may have “double-dipped” or pocketed money wrongfully from both the state and the federal government for work done at the same time.
We had absolutely no documentation to refer to. But the source, who called, was impeccable. In the course of the interview, we brought it up through a series of carefully crafted and strategic questions. Amazingly, we were able to get the top general in Texas to admit, on camera, that he wrongfully took $53,000.
But both David Raziq and investigative photojournalist Keith Tomshe had another suggestion: If one guy did it, what about the other generals? And, they suggested, isn’t it possible that the top general really took more than $53,000? As it turned out, they were right on both accounts.
The Texas state auditor and Senate Finance Committee would discover many more abuses by multiple top commanding generals in Texas, including the top commander of the Army National Guard who wrongfully pocketed $129,000.
They all claimed something called “emergency leave,” which allowed them to still collect a state paycheck while on federal duty. They got away with it by claiming they were on leave due to a “death in the family” for thousands of hours, year after year after year. After they all lost their jobs, it was enough to peak the interest of the Travis County District Attorney and the FBI, who we’re told both continue to investigate the matter.
What problems did you have to overcome to nail down this story?
Greenblatt: The single hardest part about getting this story was earning the trust of military officers. The military culture strongly encourages its members to handle problems within the organization itself. They’re told never to go outside the institution — specifically not to the media.
Knowing this culture well (my own father had served many years in Army intelligence), I knew the best thing to do was to speak with the women in person rather than on the phone or by e-mail. It meant a number of long drives and a series of in-person meetings with the senior women officers, but the personal connection proved to be the tipping point. We eventually gained their trust.
After we had a few very respected and well-connected people who wanted to talk to us, we found we were also instantly “connected” to everyone they knew throughout the entire Texas National Guard who was still serving but afraid to speak out.
Much of this story is about allegations of incidences that happened years ago. There are no videos or photos of the discrimination or the hostile acts. How did you think through the graphics and illustrations you needed to tell this story? This is, after all, TV.
David Raziq: As usual, when we get out “in the field” we try to grab as many relevant photos, documents and other items that we know we are going to need for various narrative components of the developing script. For example, thank goodness our first interview subject held onto the “Vagisil Queen” award, helping both our reporting and our storytelling opportunities.
As far as graphics, take the double-dipping generals graphics. The way we approach this and nearly all our graphics is to first write a nut graph of what we want to say or explain. We put that language into sentences that have an active tense because we want to emphasize who did what to whom.
In other words, the sentences tend to have more “objects” or icons that we can then create corresponding visuals for. “He was sentenced to 50 years,” for example, is not as good a graphic sentence as “The Harris County Court gave John Doe 50 years behind bars.”
You can see that second sentence has far more visual possibilities. In the case of the double-dipping generals, I wrote and rewrote that explanation a few times until I felt it was clear who was cheating, how they were cheating, what they received as a result and who was getting cheated. The use of a time card seemed to be the easiest visual way of explaining what the generals were doing to the government and public.
The trick to explaining the whole issue, though, was to not assume the public knew what double-dipping was, or anything about the process of how and when the generals got paid. In most graphics you have to watch out for compressed explanations (which is what passive construction does — hide subjects and objects) and instead explain everything first piece-by-piece-by-piece. Then we edit the explanation for brevity without losing any of the clarity. Otherwise you end up with a confusing or not totally satisfying explanation or graphic.
Finally, we solved a lot of visual problems along the way, especially if we had to redo any exposition, by looking for really unusual ways to re-present the visuals. For example, at one point in both our original report and the special, we used photographic cutouts of some of our victims and one of the commanders alleged to be fomenting the harassment as a “neat” way to re-introduce them.
Do you have reason to believe this is “just a Texas Air National Guard thing,” or is it more widespread?
Greenblatt: After we began breaking stories about the financial improprieties in the Guard, we began to get tips from so many other members of Guard forces nationwide. One reason: It appears to us that the National Guard has not kept pace with other military organizations when it comes to oversight.
The various state guards are given a tremendous amount of leeway when it comes to how they do their work and their jobs. While the federal government does have financial auditors in place in each state, looking over Uncle Sam’s money, the state Guard units themselves continue to be run in many respects like their own fiefdoms. One area of real exploration for any journalist in any state: Take a look at the State Guard “inspector general” process.
There are very strict regulations that say any internal complaint must be handled in a short amount of time for the good of the soldier. But in Texas, we found that process to be entirely corrupted.
The inspector generals themselves would report to the same command staff they might one day have to investigate. And when they came across a complaint a commander didn’t like? It got stalled. Sometimes for many years. Take a look at how long your own Guard unit takes to resolve those complaints and check with your own local members of Congress for other “complaints” they’ve received. If you call those people up, who knows what you’ll find.
Raziq: I definitely think the sexism aspect of the story is far more widespread in our military. I have spoken with female soldiers or airmen both in the Guard and in active service and have heard many similar stories. And often those stories are covered up for various reasons.
One question that the women enlistees ask is: “Is this a hazing process that will eventually end” or “am I in real trouble here”? So they begin a process of “waiting it out,” which is also reinforced by wanting to be “part of the team” and so, not complaining. In addition, in some cases the women being persecuted have a long career behind them and don’t want to just “quit” or jeopardize their careers by whistle blowing.
I think the whole problem is especially exacerbated by the fact that the military is more sexually-integrated than ever. This doesn’t sit well with a high-ranking older command staff that is clearly used to something else. In addition, because of the war on terror and not having enough troops, we clearly have an armed forces that is under far more stress than normal.
Take multiple tours of duty and stop-loss and then toss into this environment assertive women officers who are there in the thick of things and I think it accounts for many of the stories that we have heard of abuse, and even rape, in Iraq.
I should add, however, that the Texas National Guard situation was more troubling in some ways because it became clear that the real problem was that there was a men’s club of high ranking officers who were used to doing things their way with absolutely no challenge. Those “things” ranged from sexism to financial fraud.
What did you do online to go along with the TV stories?
Greenblatt: As the story evolved over time, more and more women began coming forward to share their story with us on camera. We felt we wanted our viewers to get to know these women in a way that we did not have time to do on air. We invited each of them to send us a picture and a biography/resume of their accomplishments.
We had an online section about women of the guard. It eventually became an unexpected tool to convince others to share their story because there is comfort in speaking out in groups. The special section became a point of pride for women officers who had previously been harassed in isolation.
After two years of doing stories, you pulled everything together in an hour-long documentary. What is the value of a big primetime program like that?
Raziq: We had pursued this story/investigation for two years, and Greenblatt had done excellent work in continuously finding new sources and pulling up more information.
But again, all these “stories” or pieces of the puzzle had never been assembled for a single viewing where you could see the detail and the great lengths he had gone to in reporting this story. Plus, assembling all of the stories also gave audience members a startling picture of what had been going on in the Texas Guard, something they wouldn’t get from watching the reports piece-meal.
Seeing all of the reporting together was like looking at something I had never seen before. It gave us the opportunity to include important interviews that had never been aired before, such as our interview with the auditor who tried to blow the whistle on financial impropriety.
The special gave our audience members the chance to see all this information in a different and useful format that gave them a better understanding of our reporting and, frankly, a better appreciation for the work that had been done. The viewer response we got back was phenomenal — and I dare say 100 percent positive and over the top.