MADISON, Wisconsin -- The Wisconsin National Guard's top commander won't finalize the discharge of a whistleblower who triggered two federal investigations into sexual assault in his unit until an investigation into whether the move amounts to retaliation is completed.
Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar said in a letter Tuesday to U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin that he lacks the authority to stop efforts to discharge Master Sgt. Jay Ellis but said Ellis would still be able to collect retirement benefits if he's ultimately drummed out of the service.
Ellis sent a letter to Baldwin in November 2018 saying he had learned of at least six instances of sexual harassment or sexual assault against female members of the 115th Fighter Wing's security squadron. The complaint led Baldwin to request a U.S. Air Force investigation. She and Gov. Tony Evers also asked federal National Guard officials to conduct a review of how the Wisconsin National Guard handles sexual assault allegations. Both investigations are ongoing.
Ellis filed a separate complaint in May with the Wisconsin National Guard's inspector general's office alleging that Guard officials had launched an in-depth review of his medical history to set him up for a medical discharge and deny him retirement benefits in retaliation for sexual assault complaints. The Wisconsin National Guard's inspector general is investigating those allegations.
Meanwhile, a medical evaluation board at Scott Air Force Base recommended Nov. 6 that Ellis be discharged. He has appealed the decision and is due to appear before another medical evaluation board, this one at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, on Dec. 3.
Baldwin wrote to Dunbar and Gen. Joseph Lengyl, chief of the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 8 asking them to halt the discharge process, saying ordering a discharge before the reprisal investigation is complete is "unacceptable."
Dunbar wrote back to Baldwin on Tuesday. He wrote that he lacks the authority to halt the discharge process but promised he wouldn't sign off on a final discharge decision until the reprisal investigation ends if Ellis agrees to that approach.
He went on to say that a discharge wouldn't result in Ellis, 48, losing his benefits. He could be eligible for immediate benefits or have to wait until he's 60 to start collecting them.
Dunbar added that he could request a delay in the discharge process but that could result in Ellis waiting longer to begin collecting his benefits.
"It is my judgment that the best course of action is to let the [discharge process] proceed," Dunbar said in the letter. "This is the best course of action to provide MSgt Ellis the benefit of complete information on what his benefits could be if the final decision is to retire him permanently."
Dunbar added that the process began after Ellis self-reported "medical issues" to his unit, which resulted in a mandatory review of his ability to continue serving.
Ellis told The Associated Press that he self-reported what he called "minor foot pain" and his commanders exaggerated the problem as a pretext to begin a full-scale medical review with an eye toward a discharge.
He said Dunbar is referring to his National Guard benefits when he said he wouldn't lose his benefits. He insisted he would be denied his full-time Air Force benefits. He accused Dunbar of spinning his story and said his plight will have a chilling effect on would-be whistleblowers.
"They are watching," he said. "So far the message has been if you see something wrong, you had better keep your mouth shut or we will come after you."