NH Guard member’s conviction on sex charges raises questions about leadership

Last modified: 3/22/2015 11:49:28 PM
Until his arrest last May, Ray Valas, the former New Hampshire Army National Guard commander, seemed a poster child for all that was right with his organization. He was a husband and a father of three who volunteered in his community, led humanitarian efforts in Central America, served in Iraq and helped fellow soldiers adjust to civilian life.

So when he was convicted in November of child sex trafficking, the Guard’s senior leadership appeared genuinely shocked. And after his sentencing last month, the organization said it had no earlier indications that Valas was involved in any illegal activity.

Maybe so. But Valas, who joined the Guard in 1995 and who is now serving 15 years in federal prison, had a record of previous discipline, according to complaints from former guardsmen and admissions from the Guard itself.

In fact, multiple retired officers question whether Valas should have even been with the Guard at the time of his crime, and say his growing authority, despite an alleged pattern of transgressions, is one of many signs that the organization has been crippled by shoddy management and blatant favoritism.

“The unvarnished reality is that there are problems with senior leadership in the New Hampshire National Guard,” Daniel Conway, a lawyer for a recently retired colonel, wrote in a letter last month to the governor’s office. Maj. Gen. Bill Reddel, who heads the organization, “is an absentee general using the post for his resume,” Conway wrote.

Valas received at least one letter of reprimand, last March, and he reportedly received two others, one around 2008, when he was employed at Joint Force Headquarters, and one in 2005, just after his deployment.

Letters of reprimand can be career-ending for senior officers if filed in their permanent personnel folder, according to the Guard. Last March’s reprimand was issued by Brig. Gen. Craig Bennett, the senior Army commander, and filed in Valas’s permanent folder months later, shortly before his conviction in San Antonio, Texas. It accused him of misusing troop donations to purchase gifts and lavish meals for foreign dignitaries during a four-month humanitarian trip to El Salvador.

Proper discipline

Valas became a lieutenant colonel in 2010, and he was completing a research fellowship last year when he received the reprimand. The fellowship, run by the Army War College, is a prerequisite for promotion to full colonel.

Valas reportedly received two other reprimands, one for ignoring promotion protocol while in Iraq, where he commanded C Company, 3rd Battalion of the 172nd Infantry. The other was allegedly for falsifying documents, according to multiple sources.

Retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Burritt, Valas’s commander during the second alleged infraction, declined to comment, citing federal personnel protections. A voice message left earlier this month at a phone number for retired Brig. Gen. John Weeden, Valas’s commander in 2005, was not returned.

The Guard has declined to discuss details from Valas’s personnel record, also citing federal protections. But spokesman Lt. Col. Greg Heilshorn has acknowledged that Valas was disciplined before his arrest – a fact not previously disclosed. Heilshorn said he could not elaborate. In an interview on March 13, both he and Reddel reiterated that senior leaders had no reason to suspect Valas of sex trafficking.

Valas is appealing the conviction. He has repeatedly acknowledged meeting with the girl, but he insists it was solely to interview her for research he was conducting on sex trafficking.

As for the delay in filing the reprimand, they said commanders typically wait some time to allow officers to respond to the allegations. “A commander wants to give the officer the benefit of the doubt because a decision like that affects a soldier’s career,” Heilshorn said.

Valas did submit a written response – in which he admitted to the purchases but said he believed he had been following protocol – about a week after the reprimand was issued.

Ralph Huber, who worked with Valas in Concord and who retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2013, said Valas should have been removed from the War College fellowship when the reprimand was issued. He further disputed whether Valas had been properly disciplined earlier in his career.

“It’s not really the case of a stellar officer with a distinguished career who did this heinous act that nobody saw coming,” Huber said, referring to the alleged pattern of ethical violations.

In a letter to Gov. Maggie Hassan, Jim Moody, a retired colonel who supervised Valas briefly at Joint Force Headquarters, said he was “saddened by (Valas’s) actions and conviction, but even more so over how Valas should have been discharged from the Guard many years ago.”

“If this was any other officer or enlisted Soldier, that individual would have been separated from the Guard,” Moody wrote.

Others have praised Valas and said they were blindsided by his arrest. Dozens submitted letters on his behalf in the lead up to his federal sentencing.

Christine Tebbetts, who was Valas’s judge advocate general in El Salvador, said he “made you want to be a better soldier.”

“He just seemed to epitomize what an army officer should be,” she said. “He was always on duty.”

Tebbetts said she was interviewed about Valas’s conduct shortly after they returned, in summer 2013, but she gave no specifics. Later that summer, Valas flew to Texas to report on the El Salvador mission. It was there that he solicited sex from a 15-year-old girl, according to prosecutors.

More questions

Moody and Huber are now business partners, and each contacted Hassan’s office last year after Conway’s client, former Col. Jeanne Jones, was selected for forced retirement. Jones has filed a complaint with the U.S. Air Force Inspector General, alleging that Reddel forced her out as retribution for having reported alleged infractions by former chief of staff Col. Scott Manahan.

Manahan has since been removed from that post and is no longer an active member of the Guard, according to Heilshorn. Heilshorn said there has been an investigation into Manahan’s conduct, but declined to elaborate.

The Inspector General’s office has launched an inquiry into Reddel’s conduct, which is expected to take several months. Jones’s last day was March 1.

Jones is a longtime military veteran, and had been with the New Hampshire Army National Guard for more than a decade. She is the first basic-branch female officer to make Army Guard colonel in the state’s history, according to Heilshorn.

Jones was selected for non-retention in May, three months after she submitted a sworn statement on Manahan’s alleged infraction. In his letter to the governor’s office, Conway noted that, five months before she gave that statement, Jones received a performance evaluation “singing her praises.”

“A solid performance from Col. Jones during this rating period,” Bennett wrote in the evaluation. “She has continued to place emphasis on and drive success with respect to key programs for (soldiers), retirees and their Families such as Casualty Assistance, Military Funeral Honors, Post Deployment Health Reassessments, and Suicide Prevention.”

Conway claims that Reddel deliberately altered a retention board’s selection criteria to include Jones. Retention boards are used to help a general weed out senior officers who are no longer progressing toward the next promotion. They were mandated last year, to help the Army downsize amid budget cuts.

The general sets the criteria, and before last year, state boards only considered officers with five years in their existing rank, or three years for colonels who had not yet enrolled in a senior service school, such as the Army War College. Reddel revised that criteria last year to include officers with three years in rank, Conway said, and he changed the cutoff from Oct. 1 to July 1, which was the day after Jones achieved three years in rank.

The changes “specifically targeted Col. Jones for potential separation,” Conway wrote.

Guarding against complaint

Reddel has denied any wrongdoing, and he pointed out that retention criteria change from year to year, to best reflect the Guard’s staffing needs. He said he has worked since arriving in 2009 to bolster “inclusion” at the Guard, especially for women.

Asked about a handful of other rumored complaints, Reddel acknowledged that “a lot of people believe that we sweep things under the rug here.”

“We don’t,” he insisted. “We investigate everything that is brought to us that has been signed by an individual so that we can cooperate with them.”

The governor’s office declined a request to turn over complaints it has received recently about the Guard, but spokesman William Hinkle said it has met with past and present officers and referred claims to the Inspector General.

“Ensuring that the Guard effectively carries out its critical duties to serve the people of New Hampshire with appropriate conduct is of the utmost importance, and given the serious nature of recent issues, Gov. Hassan has met with Gen. Reddel about the procedures for handling personnel matters,” Hinkle said in an email.

Conway denounced the governor’s response, saying Reddel is the only officer paid by the state and is therefore its direct responsibility. A former Marine staff sergeant and captain, Conway predicted that the inspector general’s inquiry would drag on for months and ultimately produce nothing.

“When it comes to the National Guard, the adjutant general does whatever he wants,” Conway said. “And when it comes time to supervising him, everybody punts.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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