Investigation uncovers physical abuse, sexual misconduct at military youth camp

The 22- week youth challenges academy is supposed to use discipline to help turn troubled youth around

It’s been described as a prank, and the video was never supposed to get out: footage of a half-naked staff member ready to perform a lap dance in a commander’s office on Fort Stewart. The people involved in the 2018 incident were all staff members of a state and federally funded program to help Georgia’s at-risk teens.

It’s one of dozens of incidents tied to the Georgia National Guard’s Youth Challenge Academies that were reviewed in a joint investigation between Channel 2 and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We requested and filtered through four years of reports dealing with kids being physically abused at the hands of adult staff members, sexual and operational misconduct, self-harm attempts and violent fights. Many unredacted records, including videos and identifying cadet information, were denied with the Department of Defense citing federal education laws.

The incidents occurred between three YCA campuses on Fort Stewart, Fort Gordon and in Milledgeville. In its nearly 30 years, the program has graduated more than 17,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 18, touting success stories tied to its curriculum of discipline. There are about 40 programs nationwide operated by the National Guard. During a recent tour of the Fort Stewart facility, former cadets talked about coming back to work for the program and credited their personal success to its structure. Current cadets described abusive backgrounds and hopes for a better future.

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Our findings got the attention of Georgia National Guard’s Maj. General Thomas Carden, who took command of Georgia DOD operations in January 2019. Last fall, he asked the inspector general to review some of the incidents and internal investigations that were being reviewed during the Channel 2/AJC investigation that started in November.

"It’s forcing us to look at our program even harder than we did,” Carden told Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr.

"If there’s an allegation made, I want the brightest light to be shined on that particular allegation and I just want to get to the truth,” Carden said.

“I sent him to each one of these cases in the fall of last year and I asked him specifically to look at some of the issues that you all are asking about, and he came right back and provided me some feedback to some of the criticisms that you all found in your investigation,” he continued.

By the end of the investigation that revolved heavily around the Fort Stewart academy, its YCA director, Dr. Roger Lotson, told staff members he’d been forced to retire.

“Why was he asked?” Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr asked Carden.

“You know I’m not going to get into any specifics of employee matters, but I certainly wish that employee the best in his retirement and the next chapter of his life for him and his family. I think he’s done a lot of great work for that program over a very long time," Carden said.

PHYSICAL VIOLATIONS

In the camps, the youth are cadets. They live in the barracks and complete a 22-week program that includes educational support, and a curriculum aimed at putting them into the workforce and keeping them off the streets.

Carden notes the program, which includes DOD training to deal with at-risk youth, costs the state $3,750 a cadet, much less than the $90,000 it would cost the state if the kids ended up in the juvenile detention system. By the end of their 22 weeks, they’ve progressed in what would be the equivalent of three years in high school, he said.

Most of the staff members who lead the cadets are former military themselves.

Records we found noted 34 “hands-off” protocol violations dating back to Jan. 1, 2016. In other words, they were incidents where adult staff members put their hands on cadets.

In one instance on Fort Gordon, military police were called in when a teacher got angry at a cadet and backed into her with her car, sending the cadet to the ER with a sprained ankle. Military police arrested the woman after the 2018 incident.

That same year in Milledgeville, a cadre member was fired for body-slamming, punching and dragging a cadet who called him a name and refused to go back to bed.

“I’m tired of y’all trying me,” the cadre said before moving in to fight the cadet.

Another staff member was barred from one campus in 2016, when she slapped a cadet for backtalk. The cadet declined to press charges.

That same year, on Fort Stewart, a cadre punched a female cadet in the face after the cadet leaned over the cadre. That staff member was suspended without pay for three days for not reporting the incident.

Other records showed inappropriate sexual contact between cadets, cadets fighting and cadets attempting to harm themselves or take their own lives.

One former cadre described a 2018 incident where she had to break up a fight between cadets.

“I ended up in the ER…miscarried,” Summer Neal said. “I lost my baby.”

Carden said he would not characterize the “hands-off” incidents as physical abuse.

“From my perspective, it departs from our policy when a staff member inappropriately touches a young man or a young woman in our program, so regardless of what word we want to attach to it whether it’s abuse, conduct unbecoming -- it departs from our basic values,” Carden said.

LAP DANCE RECORDED

It wasn’t until last June that the video of a 2018 lap dance surfaced, and it made its rounds on and off the Fort Stewart campus.

The incident happened inside drill instructor Commandant Joseph Mayfield’s office on base. It was a birthday dance for a male colleague, who was handcuffed to a chair.

Footage of half-naked staff member ready to perform a lap dance in a commander’s office on Fort Stewart
Footage of half-naked staff member ready to perform a lap dance in a commander’s office on Fort Stewart (Handout to Channel 2/AJC)

In a phone interview, Mayfield told the AJC he had no knowledge of the incident, although in the recording the lap dance recipient can be heard laughing and looking toward the camera saying “Mayfield, I’m gonna get your (expletive) for this!”

The dancer, Yulanda Clarke, is an Army veteran who worked as cadre for the female cadets at the time. She now runs an adult entertainment site from Jackson County, saying she quit the YCA to do that full-time and did not want leadership to think she was recruiting female cadets for her business.

Clarke told Carr in a February interview that Mayfield had double-checked to make sure she was still up and ready to do the dance for the colleague. He was also in the room when it started, she said.

“It was a quote, unquote, controlled situation,” Clarke told Carr, noting locked doors and no cadets around.

“People will look at it and say this is out of control and this is not what the feds or the state fund this place for you all to do,” Carr said.

“Exactly. Exactly,” Clarke answered.

“Do you agree with that?” Carr asked

“Yes,” Clarke said.

The Georgia Department of Defense launched its own investigation after the incident was described by a staff member in a separate sexual harassment claim.

Two people, including the staff member who recorded the video and the lap dance recipient, were disciplined for sexual harassment. Sgt. Nikiesha Morris, who was found to have arranged the prank, was fired. Lotson faced a week suspension without pay for his failure to notify DOD headquarters

The topic was not broached during Channel 2 and the AJC’s visit to tour Fort Stewart, with the Georgia National Guard saying another formal request would need to be submitted to speak more with Mayfield and Lotson about our findings.

The two later declined a formal interview.

Carden told our investigative team that he was satisfied with the outcome.

“I totally understand that you can talk to a number of people in any complex investigation, and you’re going to get varying stories about what the truth is,” Carden said. “I believe we made a diligent effort to get to the truth, and I believe we held everybody accountable that was involved in it.”

POLICE CALLED AFTER A GALA WITH THE GOVERNOR

In March of 2019, YCA cadets came to Atlanta to meet Gov. Brian Kemp, and honor then-Sen. Johnny Isakson and Sen. David Perdue. It was the 26th annual gala for the Georgia Youth Challenge Foundation.

The event took place at the Georgia Freight Depot in downtown Atlanta.

It was an overnight trip that ended with the cadets staying at the Clay National Guard Center on Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta. An incident report shows police were called in to investigate and cadets were disciplined for having “underage sex, drinking and smoking black & milds."

Records show the chaperones didn’t find out about the incident until after the group returned to Fort Stewart. That’s when military officials called the Department of Family and Children Services, police and the cadets’ parents. Female cadets lost campus privileges and rank, and because the cadets were 16-17 years old, neither DFACS nor police investigated the sexual contact further.

In a statement, the National Guard said the chaperones involved “received a reprimand and developed more effective procedures to prevent reoccurrence (sic).” All of the involved cadets stayed with the program and graduated, according to the statement.

We learned Carden didn’t know about the incident until the AJC reached out a year later. He said he was satisfied with how his team processed the allegations and dealt with them.

“I’ve become aware of that, just really, in the last few days,” he said. “But again, that’s not an excuse. It goes back to not what I knew, it’s what should I have known?”

A FORCED RETIREMENT AND MOVING FORWARD

In a letter to staff earlier this month, Fort Stewart YCA director Dr. Roger Lotson said he was forced to retire.

“As of 10 March, I was asked to retire,” the letter reads. “While the obvious question is why, that is not important.”

“As I leave, I encourage each of you to stay focused on the mission of helping the at-risk youth who come to YCA to leave better than they came and leave ready to become productive citizens.

I leave satisfied with what we (those who are currently working here, as well as those who moved on before me) accomplished together.”

Lotson ended noting his more than 40 years of service in the military and to the state, saying it’s now time for him to serve his church and county.

Carden, who declined to elaborate of Lotson’s departure wished him and his family well. He reiterated the commitment to the YCA program.

“The only way for me to drive risk down to zero for that program, is to not to have it,” Carden said, noting many states do not operate YCAs for that reason.

“You all I’m sure in the course of your investigation have seen some of the risks associated with this program, but I believe that the worst thing that we can do is be afraid to help these young men and women who so desperately need a chance.”

About 350 cadets have been picked up by the parents or sent home from the campuses via state vans amid the Coronavirus pandemic. Operations may resume in April.

MORE COVERAGE:

For more coverage, about recent cadet experiences and staff member claims of sexual harassment, read reports by our partners at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.