She reported a toxic workplace to the N.C. National Guard. Then was fired for getting counseling to deal with it.

WBTV Investigates: Two women claim they were forced out of Guard by harassment, retaliation
Her previous postings included time serving with the South Carolina National Guard and working for the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon.
Published: Oct. 19, 2022 at 11:02 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - April Jeffcoat had served in the Army National Guard for more than a decade by the time she moved to North Carolina.

Her previous postings included time serving with the South Carolina National Guard and working for the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon.

But she decided to transfer to the North Carolina National Guard in 2019 to become a recruiter.

Instantly, she said, she knew it was a mistake.

“When I got here to North Carolina, it was an immediate struggle,” Jeffcoat said.

Jeffcoat is one of two women who called WBTV this summer hoping to spotlight what they each say is a toxic culture inside the N.C. National Guard.

Shanta Swinton, who worked in a dual-status job as both an enlisted airman and civil employee for the N.C. Air National Guard, called the station after multiple federal hearing officers found in her favor that she had been wrongfully terminated from her civilian job in retaliation for a promotion she got in her Air Force role.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the term ‘good old boy system’ but the North Carolina Air National Guard is known for a good old boy system,” Swinton said.

The women worked in different units and under separate commands within the N.C. National Guard.

But both women provided documents that conclude they were harassed and retaliated against in cases that made it to the attention of senior N.C. National Guard leaders. Ultimately, both women cut short military careers that each said had been fulfilling.

In response to a request for comment for this story, N.C. Secretary of Public Safety Eddie Buffaloe—who oversees the National Guard—called for claims by both Jeffcoat and Swinton to be fully investigated.

“The Secretary takes these allegations seriously and feels it is appropriate for them to be fully investigated at both the state and federal level,” Buffaloe said in an emailed statement. “These matters have to go through the process that is being conducted in accordance with military protocols.”

‘They were afraid of me because I filed an equal opportunity complaint’

Jeffcoat worked full time as an enlisted soldier in the N.C. National Guard’s recruiting unit.

From the day she started, she said, she found the work environment to be toxic. Jeffcoat said she was the only female on her team and was not given the same opportunities to go to trainings and other special assignments like her male counterparts.

She said she decided to file a complaint for gender discrimination after her supervisor’s reaction to Jeffcoat calling to tell him she would be out of work after an emergency surgery.

“His response to me was, ‘well, Sergeant Jeffcoat, this is why recruiting and retention has a hard time hiring females and I need to know how many people you’re going to put down range next month. And I need you to be back in the office as soon as possible,’” she recalled.

Jeffcoat filed a formal complaint with her chain of command detailing those remarks.

That complaint, she said, just brought her more harassment from her supervisor.

“I was told by my first sergeant that no one would talk to me because they were afraid of me because I filed an equal opportunity complaint,” she said.

A memo from Jeffcoat’s commander found that Jeffcoat’s supervisor should be removed from a supervisory role and reassigned to a different job. The memo said the first sergeant should also be counseled in writing “on expectations of professional conduct towards subordinates and the expectations of maintaining a non-hostile work environment.”

The memo also recommended Jeffcoat be reassigned to a different team within the recruiting battalion or moved to a different unit.

But when it came time for her reassignment, Jeffcoat said she was told that she would have to move to a new recruiting team based in Raleigh, roughly three hours away from where she lived and worked in Gaston County.

If she didn’t accept the new job in Raleigh, she was told her command would have her removed from the army.

And that’s what happened.

Jeffcoat forced out of Army for seeking counseling

Records Jeffcoat provided show she was found medically unfit for continued military service because she was seeking counseling for what her therapist said was a hostile work environment.

Jeffcoat’s records include a note from her counselor asking that she be reassigned out of her current job.

“I determined that it was in her best interest to be removed from the hostile and toxic environment that was causing her anxiety and distress for her well-being,” the note from her counselor wrote recommending she be out of work for 30 days.

“It is my assessment that Sgt. Jeffcoat’s anxiety symptoms and panic attacks are ongoing. In addition, Sgt. Jeffcoat is now experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”

But the records show Jeffcoat’s treatment for anxiety were used against her in performance reviews and, ultimately, cited as the reason to remove her from the Army.

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A performance review from her battalion commander in September 2021 cited her anxiety as making her unfit for duty but attributed the anxiety to COVID-19 concerns and did not mention the hostile work environment cited by Jeffcoat’s therapist.

Previous performance reviews from 2019 and 2020—since she moved to North Carolina—found she passed her physical fitness tests and had performance that exceeded expectations.

One review called Jeffcoat “a top notch NCO who expects and enjoys a challenge.”

The negative review from 2021 stated explicitly that her mental health treatment made her unfit to continue serving and said top leaders in the N.C. National Guard were aware of the situation.

“She is not able to function as a member of her recruiting detachment due to [behavioral health] concerns, which result in a lack of situation awareness for specific tasks that her team is accountable for. Her direct supervisor all the way up to the NCARNG Chief of Staff are aware of her medical condition.”

Instead of working to accommodate her mental health treatment, the N.C. National Guard forced her out of the Army, records show.

Jeffcoat was brought before a medical evaluation board and found unfit for service.

One doctor involved in the process specifically cited the note from her counselor as a reason she should be removed from the Army.

Separation for mental health treatment came as Army pushed soldiers to seek help

Jeffcoat officially left the Army in September 2022.

“It makes me fearful for other people who also seek behavioral health treatment because the military really promotes, you know, taking care of yourself,” Jeffcoat said.

Jeffcoat’s experience comes after years of senior Army leaders trying to encourage soldiers to seek mental health treatment.

Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston has repeatedly underscored the importance of leaders supporting their soldiers getting mental health treatment.

He sent a tweet in November 2020 saying, “We don’t judge Soldiers for going to a gym to get stronger, a financial counselor to start an investment account, a church to become more spiritual, a mechanic to tune up their car, enrolling in college, etc. And we SHOULDN’T judge them for seeking behavioral health, either.”

More recently, Grinston told a conference last week that the Army is working to implement a plan for annual wellness checks for all soldiers, the military-focused publication Task & Purpose reported.

Despite that, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau—the Department of Defense command that oversees the individual states’ national guards—declined to comment on Jeffcoat’s removal from the Army for seeking mental health treatment.

A spokesman for the N.C. National Guard declined to make someone available to answer questions for this story on-camera and said he could not provide any comment because Jeffcoat has a pending complaint.

Jeffcoat said the pending complaint was filed in 2020 and has not been investigated by the N.C. National Guard since.

‘It’s been pain. It’s been terrible.’

Weeks before Jeffcoat called WBTV to share her story, Shanta Swinton called to report retaliation she had experienced in the N.C. Air National Guard.

Like Jeffcoat’s unit in the Army National Guard, Swinton’s Air National Guard unit is also overseen by Hunt, the Adjutant General, and the same civilian chain of command.

Swinton spent 21 years enlisted in the Air National Guard. In addition to her enlisted job, she worked a civilian job in the same unit through an arrangement known as dual-status.

That’s how Swinton came to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016, alleging she had been fired from her civilian job because of a promotion she got over another airman in her Air Force role.

According to Swinton’s complaint, she began receiving negative write-ups critical of her job performance in her civilian role within days of receiving her Air Force promotion after she successfully appealed the promotion board’s decision to give the job to a different airman.

Ultimately, Swinton’s complaint said her supervisors used the negative reviews and counseling statements to fire her.

Prior to her promotion, Swinton said she had exemplary performance reviews.

EEOC records show an administrative judge ruled in Swinton’s favor and awarded sanctions against the Department of the Air Force because the N.C. National Guard refused to respond to Swinton’s complaint.

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In filings with the EEOC and in a statement from the N.C. National Guard’s spokesman for this story, the Guard has maintained the EEOC does not have jurisdiction over Swinton’s complaint, even though multiple cases and a change in law all say the EEOC does. As a result, the N.C. National Guard has refused to acknowledge the multiple EEOC rulings in Swinton’s favor.

Instead, the Guard spokesman said Swinton’s allegations were investigated by an internal inspector general and dismissed as unfounded.

“Master Sergeant (Retired) Shanta Swinton’s allegations were investigated during two separate inquiries, one of which was reviewed and affirmed by the Secretary of the Air Force’s Inspector General Complaints Resolution Directorate. Neither of those inquiries substantiated Master Sergeant Swinton’s allegations; she has been provided with the results of both investigations,” Major Ellis Parks said in an email.

Swinton said she retired from the Air Force because of the turmoil caused by her firing from her civilian job. Otherwise, she said, she had intended to stay enlisted as long as possible.

“It’s been pain. It’s been horrible. I’ve had to make some life changes,” Swinton said of the years-long fight.

“If they’re not exposed for what’s going on, I think it’s just going to be something that continues to happen to people. I think people are just going to keep quiet because who wants to lose their job?”