A retired former major with Canada’s special forces says he felt betrayed after senior military leaders gave positive character references to a soldier found guilty of sexually assaulting his wife — while offering no support to his family.
Kevin Schamuhn’s regiment and a deputy commander in his chain of command, Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe, submitted letters to a judge in 2017 prior to a sentencing hearing for Maj. Jonathan Hamilton.
Schamuhn said that when he confronted Dawe about it, he acknowledged he wanted to influence sentencing and felt Hamilton was a “good guy” who deserved a break.
“It was an extremely painful betrayal,” Schamuhn said. “By far, worse than anything I had ever experienced in combat.
“Of all the enemies I fought overseas, none of them have that level of access to my personal life and to the vulnerability of my family.”
Kevin and Annalise Schamuhn are sharing their story publicly for the first time, saying they want to drive change in the military by exposing how the chain of command handled their case.
The couple said Dawe and other senior officers did not consult with them before writing the letters and gave an institutional pass to someone they believed was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dawe is currently the commander of the Canadian Special Operation Forces.
“I believe that through this experience, Gen. Dawe lost his moral authority to lead the Special Forces,” said Schamuhn.
In a written statement sent to CBC News, Dawe said he never condoned the serious offences of which Hamilton was convicted. He said he sent the letter at Hamilton’s request to describe for the court his “military accomplishments, including while deployed on combat operations.”
“The letter also attempted to provide a sense of the member’s struggles stemming from injuries — both physical and emotional — sustained as a result of his duties,” Dawe wrote.
“That said, I had a responsibility to recognize all persons who were impacted by the events leading to the conviction. And in supporting one, I lost sight of the complete needs of the victim and the victim’s spouse, both of whom deserved my support.”
Dawe said it’s clear to him now that he should have “acknowledged the significant burden the victims were carrying and would continue to carry …”
Schamuhn said he was deeply troubled by Dawe’s decision to get involved in the sentencing phase.
“Gen. Dawe was in my chain of command,” he said. “For him to support a violent criminal who had violated my wife, I didn’t know what to do. I was shocked.”
Schamuhn said he spoke to Dawe about the letter by phone on Sept. 30, 2017 and took detailed notes of the conversation, which he shared with CBC News.
“It was to affect sentencing. That’s precisely the reason. I’m not going to apologize for that,” Dawe told Schamuhn, according to Schamuhn’s notes.
Dawe told Schamuhn that he’d had a long personal relationship with Hamilton, who worked for him when he was a commanding officer in Afghanistan, according to Schamuhn’s notes.
The notes quote Dawe saying he wasn’t happy about what Hamilton had done and “felt in some respects very bad” for Schamuhn and Annalise — but he felt Hamilton deserved a chance to not “have his life completely thrown down the toilet” after “the tough go he’d been through.”
“Given all that he had been subjected to in terms of his experience overseas, how frankly he was mistreated by the institution, I thought he deserved a break …” Dawe said, according to the notes. “I certainly don’t see him as a threat to society for just a second. I think on the whole he’s a pretty good guy.”
Judge cited character references in sentencing
The case was prosecuted through civilian court. According to court documents, the judge said during Hamilton’s sentencing hearing in August, 2017 that high-level military personnel had provided character references that described him as “a man of great character and leadership before being engulfed in PTSD” resulting from multiple deployments to Afghanistan.
The court documents say Justice Larry O’Brien reported that the letters “candidly offered” that Hamilton returned to duty overseas without following the proper protocol to reduce his operational stress injury.
O’Brien said Hamilton had a “distinguished past” and had been dealing with a lot of stress. O’Brien sentenced Hamilton to three years’ probation rather than jail time. O’Brien also placed him on a sex offender registry and required him to undergo treatment and community service.
Hamilton was later sentenced to three years in custody for a separate, unrelated sexual assault case.
WATCH: Retired military couple describes ‘painful betrayal’ following sexual assault
The Schamuhns said they believe the letters from Hamilton’s commanders influenced the sentencing process. They say PTSD should not be offered up as an excuse for sexual assault.
“There’s a lot of soldiers who have gone through really horrible experiences and had PTSD and lost their marriages, and they never used it as an excuse to sexually assault anybody,” said Annalise.
Megan MacKenzie is the Simons Chair in International Law and Human Security at Simon Fraser University. She points to a U.S. study of service members facing trial; it concluded that none of those diagnosed with PTSD were found unfit for trial. A proposed bill in the U.S. would allow the courts to consider PTSD as a mitigating factor when sentencing military veterans.
Annalise Schamuhn testified in court that she was sexually assaulted by Hamilton, a longtime family friend and neighbour in Kingston, Ont.
Hamilton and Kevin Schamuhn served in the same regiment; they both deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 and had a number of similar postings across Canada throughout their careers.
Annalise, who also is a retired army logistics officer, said Schamuhn was out of town on training in 2013 when she awoke to find Hamilton in her bed.
“He got into my bed and tried to have sex with me,” Schamuhn told CBC News. “In the moment, it was scary because I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Regiment sent letter on Hamilton’s behalf
Prior to sentencing, Schamuhn said he was blindsided to learn that his own regiment, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), also sent a positive character reference letter about Hamilton to the judge prior to sentencing.
Schamuhn obtained a copy of the character reference letter, written on the regiment’s behalf by Lt.-Col. Scott MacGregor, and shared it with CBC News.
The letter, which was submitted to court two weeks after Hamilton was found guilty, says the military awarded him a combat decoration for his role in confronting insurgent forces in Afghanistan in 2006 and a sacrifice medal after he was wounded by shrapnel in an attack.
MacGregor’s letter called Hamilton an “innate leader” and a specialist in reconnaissance.
In the letter, MacGregor described Hamilton’s sexual assault case as an “isolated legal incident” and claimed “Hamilton had never been part of a situation that questioned his judgment, character or behaviour.”
Schamuhn said he asked the PPCLI’s regimental colonel at the time, Jay Adair, to rescind or edit the letter to include the facts about his service and nothing more. He said Adair shook his hand and told him the regiment had his back, but then left the letter submitted to the court unchanged.
“It made the feeling of betrayal much worse,” said Schamuhn. “This was the first time I asked for something that meant so much and we were left out to dry.”
In a written statement issued to CBC News, MacGregor said the letter was requested by Hamilton’s defence council and was intended to outline his professional performance.
“While it was seen as a procedural formality at the time, I recognize that it was personally hurtful to Kevin, which I regret,” said MacGregor.
Adair has not responded to CBC’s request for comment.
Retired colonel Rory Fowler, a former military lawyer now in private practice, said it’s not unusual for a military member accused of sexual assault, or their defence counsel, to seek and obtain character references from commanding officers for the purposes of sentencing.
“It is not unheard of for a CF member, tried by a civilian court, regardless of offence, to obtain character references as part of the sentencing process,” he said, adding that such letters don’t always have much of an impact on the sentence.
Schamuhn said he later learned from another senior officer of another instance when Dawe tried to defend a soldier from consequences in a sexual misconduct case.
He said the senior member told him they were dismayed to learn of Dawe’s intervention in Hamilton’s case after he was spoken to about his “blindspot.”
Complaint filed with chief of defence staff
Months after the sentencing, Schamuhn said, he took his concerns directly to Gen. Jonathan Vance, then the chief of the defence staff.
“I believe the decision to support a violent, convicted sex offender is in direct contravention of the orders you gave and permits the continuation of harmful and inappropriate criminal behaviour within the CAF,” Schamuhn wrote in a letter of complaint to Vance on Oct 9, 2017.
Vance responded that he had looked into the matter and found Schamuhn’s objection “has merit.”
“The actions you bring to my attention in your letter are inconsistent with my direction and with Op HONOUR,” wrote Vance on Nov. 22, 2017.
Vance wrote that those who drafted the letters did not do so out of malice, nor did they fully contemplate the potential impact on the military. Vance said he would include direction and training materials in Operation Honour explaining how support should be provided to CAF members awaiting trial and sentencing for sexual misconduct.
“I am confident that the actions I have taken both directly address your complaint and ensure the incidents of this nature will not be repeated without severe repercussions in the future,” wrote Vance in his letter.
The Schamuhns said they feel that response fell short.
“Just adding another rule or another policy isn’t going to fundamentally change the fact that we’re in a culture that allows people to tolerate sexual misconduct,” said Annalise.
Asked by CBC News whether Vance made changes to Operation Honour in response to Schamuhn’s complaint, a DND spokesperson said only that the department does not “have a copy of a directive or any other information to provide at this time.”
CBC also asked DND why Dawe and Adair were promoted to new responsibilities following Hamilton’s court case. “With regards to MGen Dawe and Col Adair,” said the department statement, “they are both outstanding officers who have been promoted through hard work and merit.”
‘Turning a blind eye’
MacKenzie said the Schamuhns’ case “completely undermines” the military’s claim that it has a zero tolerance policy on sexual assault.
She said there’s a dark side to the “band of brothers” mentality in the military — especially in the highly secretive Special Forces, where there’s a code of silence and an expectation that soldiers will protect each other at all costs.
“There’s now widespread evidence now that senior leaders in the military not only may be accused of sexual assault, but now are sort of turning a blind eye or actually defending perpetrators,” she said.
Annalise Schamuhn said she left the military due to an overall culture of harassment, bullying and sexual misconduct. She said she didn’t feel like it was a safe place for her any longer.
“You’re treated like you’re the issue,” said Annalise. “Like you’re too sensitive, you’re raising a problem.”
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