By Theresa Braine
Friday, November 19, 2010
Investigative journalists with TV station KHOU-Houston started with a tip about Texas National Guard officers publicly degrading a lower-ranking woman. That led to a wider story of abuse that has earned numerous national awards.
(WOMENSENEWS) -- It started with the "Vagisil Award" in which a foam tiara decorated with military fatigue cloth and the label of an anti-itch vaginal ointment was placed on the head of a lower-ranking woman in the Texas Air National Guard.
The recipient was chosen because, her commanding officers said, "she whined and bitched about everything," according to a colleague who witnessed the ceremony at a leadership camp attended by top brass in the Texas Air National Guard.
Mark Greenblatt, an investigative reporter at KHOU-TV in Houston, heard about the crowning while working on another story involving the military.
It's the kind of tangential information that reporters often come across when they're following something else. Greenblatt thought it was worth checking out.
Over the next two years he would dig up a story that was not only about the abuse of women by top officers but also allegations of financial fraud.
Several officers were suspected of "double dipping,"or billing two government branches simultaneously by drawing state and federal salaries when they were supposed to clock out of one while working for the other.
Starting in 2008, Greenblatt and his investigative team--David Raziq, Keith Tomshe, Chris Henao, Robyn Hughes and Keith Connors--worked for more than a year and a half to produce several stories about a range of malfeasance among top officials of the Texas Air National Guard.
In June 2009 executive producer Raziq put the reports together to create a comprehensive hour-long special broadcast, "Under Fire: Discrimination and Corruption in the Texas National Guard,"which this year has swept up such major national journalism awards including the top medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors, the duPont and the Peabody.
The effects of their journalism continue.
The Texas Attorney General is suing two generals for unauthorized payments of $21,089.82 and $129,443.84. A third general has repaid a substantial sum.
While the civil suit wends its way through the courts, the head of the public integrity unit of the Travis County District Attorney's Office in Texas has confirmed that a criminal investigation is also ongoing, KHOU said in an August 2010 story.
The original complaints of the women are still pending, but the officers in charge of that conduct have been dismissed and a new commander heads the Texas National Guard.
It's a lesson on following the story wherever it leads, Greenblatt said in a recent phone interview.
"A couple of years back we had found a pattern of problems where the U.S. Navy was actually protecting child molesters,"Greenblatt said. Some of his contacts on that story put him in touch with the mother of the roommate of the Vagisil Award recipient. The roommate's mother belonged to a three-generation military family and she felt the need to speak out.
Greenblatt's commitment to the story was intensified by a 2008 congressional inquiry into allegations of systemic discrimination against women in the Texas National Guard.
"What really struck me immediately in hearing about it and talking to congressional staffers was the senior nature and accomplished nature of the women who had joined together to complain to congress,"Greenblatt said. They were a medical doctor from Johns Hopkins, a colonel who had served in Iraq and other high-ranking women.
At first the women in the Texas Guard wanted nothing to do with reporters.
"They were very hesitant at first because in the military they teach you to never air your dirty laundry,"Greenblatt said. "What they ended up (doing) was helping take a cancer out. And I think that's how they came around to seeing their role as well."
He persuaded former Command Chief Rita Goudeau, one of the instigators of the congressional investigation, to talk and get her colleagues to do the same.
"I promised her one thing,"Greenblatt said. "I told her that I would see her story through to the end."
A pivotal source among the women turned out to be Colonel Sue Hechinger, a decorated officer who had been pushed out of the guard for supposedly failing to perform her Texas-based job duties while on tour in Iraq.
She, like the other women, held back. But Hechinger ended up giving Greenblatt and his team some key information. For a time she acted as an informal liaison between Greenblatt and her colleagues who were dead set against talking to the media.
"In the military we have kind of a rule of thumb; that you don't talk to the media,"Hechinger told Women's eNews. "You leave it to the public affairs person. That was how we felt about this."
However, she said, Greenblatt won her over.
"He really took on our cause and owned it, and he was the right guy at the right time,"Hechinger said. "Mark's personal integrity and honor would have made him a brilliant officer and someone a commander would have been lucky to have in their unit."
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Journalist Theresa Braine covers international and other topics from New York City.
"Under Fire: Discrimination and Corruption in the Texas National Guard":
The 2009 Investigative Reporters and Editors Medal:
2010 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism:
2009 Peabody Award Honoring Achievement in Television: