The commander of the Special Forces, Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe, apologized to his members last night in an open letter for failing a major under his chain of command after his wife, who is also a former member, was sexually assaulted by another soldier.
“As all of you have likely read, I failed a member of our Command,” wrote Dawe in the letter obtained by CBC News. “Instead, when approached by the perpetrator in this case, I recognized empathy with his personal struggles and responded emotionally.”
“And while my intent was purely driven, it is clear that the impact of my actions was profoundly harmful to the victim and her spouse. Moreover, I did not consider how my actions would be viewed by other silent survivors or sexual assault in our ranks.”
The apology came on the heels of a CBC News story about retired members Kevin and Annalise Schamuhn, who said they felt betrayed after Dawe wrote a character reference for a convicted offender to help him get a more lenient sentence in court and offered no support to them, the victims.
The Schamuhns said they feel Dawe has lost his moral authority to lead the Special Forces after his mishandling of their case.
Dawe has not stepped down from his top job. Instead, he said in the letter he was offering his members three things.
“First, my absolute condemnation of sexual assault and misconduct in all forms; second, my sincerest apology to all of you who rightfully expected more from your Commander; and third, my commitment to do better.”
Dawe said over the past four years he’s done “a lot of self reflection” and has been “humbled by and have learned from this experience.”
WATCH: Retired military couple describes ‘painful betrayal’ following sexual assault:
“I’ve come to realise the significant degree to which I have been shaped by my personal experiences and blinded by my biases,” Dawe wrote.
“I have had the opportunity to hear directly from other survivors of harassment and assault and I can assure you that it has been sobering and enlightening.”
Soldier found guilty of 6 counts of criminal offences
Kevin Schamuhn said he was blindsided in 2017 to learn Dawe, his superior in his chain of command as deputy commander of the Special Forces, had written a character reference for Maj. Jonathan Hamilton after he was found guilty on six criminal counts in civilian court.
An Ontario justice found Hamilton guilty of unlawfully entering the Schamuhns’ Kingston home and sexually assaulting Annalise Schamuhn on two separate occasions. Hamilton was also found guilty of physically assaulting Kevin Schamuhn twice.
Schamuhn said Dawe admitted to him on a phone call on Sept. 30, 2017, that his “motive” was to influence sentencing, and was unapologetic.
“Given all that [Hamilton] 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 detailed notes Kevin Schamuhn took during the call. “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.”
The judge noted during sentencing that letters from high-level military personnel described Hamilton as “a man of great character and leadership before being engulfed in PTSD” resulting from multiple deployments to Afghanistan. The judge then gave the accused probation rather than jail time.
However, the next year, in 2018, Hamilton was sentenced to jail after a second, unrelated sexual assault trial.
Kevin 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.
In a statement to CBC News on Wednesday, Dawe said he went through mediation sessions with Kevin Schamuhn. But 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.”
Story ‘struck a deep nerve,’ Schamuhns say
Annalise and Kevin Schamuhn have read Dawe’s apology letter and say they stand by their comments. The couple said their story has “struck a nerve within the Special Forces community and beyond.”
“We have received responses from women and men who are not only experiencing the shock of the betrayal on our behalf; they are also experiencing it personally,” said the Schamuhns in a written statement to CBC News. “If someone of our level of status and privilege is treated this way, how can anyone feel safe?”
The couple said “people might expect that changing a key leadership position will bring closure to emotional trauma.”
“It could be an important symbolic gesture; however, we believe that a more meaningful immediate response from leaders is to provide a safe venue for people to be truly heard.”
WATCH | Full interview with the Schamuhns, who say high-level military members failed to support them:
During CBC’s original interview with the Schamuhns, they said their story exposes a root problem and shows the military is promoting individuals based on the wrong merit.
Dawe was given the job of commander after they complained to the chief of defence staff at the time, Gen. Jonathan Vance. Vance agreed their issue had merit and was inconsistent with Operation Honour, the military’s campaign to stamp out sexual misconduct in the ranks, according to a letter from Vance.
“It showed me that the organization promotes people based on key positions that they’ve held in the past,” said Kevin Schamuhn in an interview with CBC News. “It promotes people based on their ability to accomplish tasks. But it doesn’t take into consideration the individual’s moral courage or how well they take care of the people under their command.”
Sajjan promises ‘bold’ action
Dawe’s apology letter was released the same day that top government and military officials held a lengthy press conference about their next steps to better handle sexual misconduct in the military.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan apologized to victims who have felt unsupported and promised to take “bold” action.
“To every member in the [Canadian Armed Forces], to every person in [the Department of National Defence] who has been affected by sexual harassment and violence and felt that we were not there to support you — I’m truly sorry,” Sajjan said yesterday.
The government has tasked former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour with leading an external review into sexual harassment and misconduct. The Department of National Defence will also establish a new in-house position — a chief of conduct and professionalism — to be held by Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan.
Read Dawe’s full letter: