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The Wisconsin National Guard cleared her 4 times. She still wants to know why she was fired

Source: Kenny Yoo for Wisconsin Watch

The Wisconsin National Guard cleared her 4 times. She still wants to know why she was fired

Col. Leslie Zyzda Martin faced unsubstantiated complaints during her time leading Volk Field before now-interim Adjutant General David May got rid of her.

June 12, 2024 9:24 AM CDT

By: Katelyn Ferral / Wisconsin Watch

Col. Leslie Zyzda Martin’s firing from her job as a commander in the Wisconsin Air National Guard began like this:

“Let me start by saying this is a one-way conversation,” said Gen. David May, her supervisor at the time and now interim head of the Wisconsin National Guard, reading off of a piece of paper. 

“Colonel Zyzda Martin, I am removing you from command, effective immediately. Based on information presented to me in two command directed investigations, I have lost confidence in your ability to command.”

Zyzda Martin sat across from May in the air traffic control tower conference room at Volk Field that day, Nov. 8, 2021, flabbergasted and confused. She was not allowed to speak and was escorted to her office to collect her things and led off the base she briefly commanded.

She knew several complaints had been lodged against her, but she said May had never questioned her about them nor showed her any evidence supporting the allegations.

“Some of the things I didn’t even know what he was talking about when he was reading it,” said Zyzda Martin, 56, of May’s script. “It was very surreal.” 

Three years later, the one-way conversation continues. According to Zyzda Martin and public records in her case, the Wisconsin National Guard has produced scant evidence of wrongdoing during her time in command of Volk Field.

In addition, records show that four internal military investigations cleared her name, affirming that the allegations against her were unsubstantiated. Yet, a black mark on her record remains.

In 2022, Zyzda Martin got another job in the South Carolina Guard, retaining the rank of colonel. But her termination in Wisconsin prevents her, by policy, from being promoted, putting her at risk for being forced into retirement.

Woman in military attire next to a lake
Four internal military investigations did not substantiate three claims against Col. Leslie Zyzda Martin. Before being fired, she had been trying to clean up problems at Volk Field. (Kenny Yoo for Wisconsin Watch)

May, the Guard commander who oversaw her firing and whom Gov. Tony Evers recently appointed to lead the entire Wisconsin National Guard, wasn’t only Zyzda Martin’s supervisor. He was also her predecessor at Volk Field, where she assumed command in 2020 and encountered several instances in which the base had violated Air Force and National Guard protocols, policies and procedures.

Zyzda Martin’s case is the latest in a longstanding pattern of troubling treatment by the National Guard in Wisconsin and other states of its own members, particularly women, where retaliation and retribution for reporting wrongdoing can be swift. In the Guard, commanders make personnel decisions with minimal scrutiny, those accused of misconduct get little due process, and commanders rarely face major consequences for breaking military protocols.

Wisconsin Watch requested an interview and sent written questions about Zyzda Martin’s case to Evers and the Wisconsin National Guard. Evers, as commander-in-chief of the National Guard, declined to be interviewed, deferring questions on the case to the Guard. Evers did not comment on the status of a separate review his legal counsel said the office was pursuing into Zyzda Martin’s case.

May also declined to be interviewed or answer specific questions about the case. Wisconsin Guard spokeswoman Bridget Esser reiterated in a statement that May removed Zyzda Martin from command because he lost confidence in her. 

“His loss of confidence in Col. Zyzda Martin stemmed from information learned during investigations into complaints made against Zyzda Martin,” she said. “The complaints were unsubstantiated, but behavior discovered during the investigation formed the basis for letters issued to Col. Zyzda Martin during the same meeting at which she was relieved of command.”

May did not answer specifics about what the behavior was, nor provide any additional evidence that Zyzda Martin displayed such troubling behavior. Guard investigators who reviewed the specific allegations against Zyzda Martin in the four investigations did note, based on interviews with her subordinates and colleagues at Volk, that they believed Zyzda Martin exhibited some problematic behavior. In some cases, investigators believed she did not foster a positive command climate and violated the Guard’s chain of command. But none of the behaviors they cited was confirmed or separately investigated, as is required by federal Air Force protocol. 

Zyzda Martin maintains that May never confronted her with any concerns about her behavior that arose from the investigations before abruptly terminating her.

Esser, the Guard spokeswoman, also pointed to the determination in a discrimination complaint that Zyzda Martin filed against the state in June 2022. In the complaint, she alleged the Wisconsin Guard discriminated against her based on her sex when they fired her. The Department of Workforce Development, which handles such complaints, found after a nine-month investigation she was not discriminated against. 

“Ultimately, the (Equal Rights Division) determined that there was no probable cause to believe discrimination occurred, concluding that there were legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the letters and removal from command,” she said. 

Zyzda Martin said she was going to appeal the decision but decided to drop it in order to pursue an investigation through Evers’ office, which is allowed under the Wisconsin Code of Military Justice. She is still waiting on the result of that investigation.

A room full of military members sitting in chairs with an American flag at upper right
Col. Leslie Zyzda Martin gives a speech during her Assumption of Command ceremony in Hangar 504 at Volk Field Air National Guard Base, Camp Douglas, Wis., on Sept. 10, 2020. She was fired 14 months later, though four internal military investigations found nothing to substantiate the complaints against her. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Andrea F. Rhode)

In interviews with Wisconsin Watch, five former and current Guard members who worked with Zyzda Martin corroborated her version of events and called Zyzda Martin’s firing and the secrecy surrounding it intimidating, creating a climate of fear and worries that they, too, could be fired with no due process. The five, some of whom are still serving in the Guard, requested anonymity, citing retaliation concerns. 

“What was going on, it just didn’t add up,” said one former Guard leader who served with Zyzda Martin. 

Zyzda Martin faced three allegations during her command: She mishandled an allegation of sexual harassment, bullied her secretary and violated federal medical privacy laws involving two Guard members. Each was evaluated through four military investigations led by a Wisconsin Guard officer. Zyzda Martin cooperated in every investigation and was exonerated in every one, according to the investigative records of each case.

Her case, records show, had several puzzling twists and turns. 

For example, the day after Zyzda Martin was fired, the Guard took the unusual step of announcing her termination in a press release. Although none of the investigations substantiated any of the allegations against her, May said in the press release that Guard investigations “revealed issues concerning climate command and alleged misconduct.” 

Zyzda Martin maintains she has no idea why she was fired. But she suspects it relates to how she handled a sexting case at Volk Field. 

The case involved a female Guard member who was taking nude, explicit photos of herself and sending them to Guard colleagues. There were so many nude photos, Zyzda Martin said it took her four hours to go through them all.

“The biggest part of that rule breaking was that she did it at work, during work hours, at her work location,” Zyzda Martin said.

Zyzda Martin ultimately chose to fire the female Guard member. She said she later learned that May overruled her, and the woman was reinstated shortly after Zyzda Martin was fired.

One Guard member who worked with Zyzda Martin said: “Every time she tried to expose something, they would not back her, and then they would turn it into somehow she was doing something wrong.”

Zyzda Martin’s case offers a glimpse of political and personnel scheming at the Wisconsin Guard’s highest levels. Wisconsin Watch interviewed Zyzda Martin six times over three months and reviewed hundreds of pages of records related to her case, including correspondence and the final investigative reports.

“She has the most well-documented case of anybody I’ve ever seen getting screwed,” said Dan Woodside, a former California National Guard pilot and whistleblower who reviewed the investigative reports in Zyzda Martin’s case at her request. He also has helped Guard leaders nationwide who say they were railroaded by frivolous investigations.

Zyzda Martin said she just wants to know why she was terminated.

“I continue to fight this so no other airman or soldier in the National Guard has to go through this hell,” she said.

Trying to fix problems  

Zyzda Martin came to Wisconsin during a time of transition and turmoil. 

When the Wisconsin National Guard hired her in May 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, and a previous scandal had resulted in the firing of the state’s top commander, Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar. Zyzda Martin took over at Volk Field from May, who had overseen the air field since 2016.

The Wisconsin Guard pledged to change and reform its policies and culture after the 2019 scandal in which federal investigators determined Guard leaders mishandled sexual assault complaints for at least a decade, failed to follow military protocol by tracking cases or providing victims and alleged perpetrators due process, and tried to cover it up.

While Dunbar was fired, others who served under him in leadership positions when violations occurred, including May, remained in their jobs or were promoted.

Evers appointed the now former adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, to lead the Wisconsin Guard in February 2020. May became his deputy, overseeing the Air Force component of the Guard. Knapp abruptly resigned earlier this month citing “personal and health issues,” making May the new top commander.

Wisconsin Watch requested an interview with May to discuss his tenure at Volk Field, but he declined to be interviewed or answer questions about his time in command there. 

Wisconsin Air National Guard Col. Leslie Zyzda Martin, former commander of Volk Field Air National Guard Base, greets Afghans at the base on Aug. 26, 2021. During her time at Volk Field, she implemented changes to address several deficiencies. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Rhianna Ballenger)

Volk Field, located in Juneau County, just east of Tomah, is a sleepy air base typically used for military training exercises. But when Zyzda Martin took over, commanding 500 Guard members and civilians, it was a hub of several major operations.

Amid the pandemic, Volk served as a processing base for military members to quarantine before being deployed. That made it a whirlwind of people flying in and out from units across the country.

When the U.S. pulled the last troops out of Afghanistan and evacuated Afghans who had supported American forces there during its 20-year war, thousands of them poured into Volk Field. The base served as a landing site for the refugees before they were sent to Fort McCoy 25 miles away to be processed before resettlement.

Soon after she arrived, Zyzda Martin made changes at Volk Field to align with National Guard policy, according to Guard records reviewed by Wisconsin Watch. 

She restructured a firearm program for base security personnel that had operated against military policy, with no required psychological assessments or proper training.

She overhauled the airfield’s safety program after one technician died in 2019 while replacing light bulbs on a runway. An independent investigation into the death later found that Volk Field, then under May’s command, was not properly staffed and had “significant voids in safety program management, training, and compliance,” which “all contributed to the employee coming in fatal contact with an energized system” on the runway, according to the investigation.

When Zyzda Martin arrived, documentation for several significant processes for how the base should run was missing, which she said is unusual for a military base. She directed the establishment of those critical processes, she said. 

Sexual harassment case leads to complaint  

In December 2020, a female Guard member who reported to Zyzda Martin came to her and said she was being sexually harassed by another Guard member.

Zyzda Martin recommended that the female Guard member pursue a restraining order through the local court system in Juneau County, which the female Guard member did. Zyzda Martin also issued a military no-contact order for both Guard members.

Two months after making the sexual harassment complaint, the female Guard member received her latest performance report. It showed she had been downgraded in one area of her job performance.

After receiving her performance report, the female Guard member filed a complaint with the Inspector General in April 2021 against Zyzda Martin, alleging that Zyzda Martin and her staff downgraded her in retaliation for reporting the alleged sexual harassment. Zyzda Martin denied this, and a Guard investigation later confirmed that the performance review was completed before the Guard member made the sexual harassment complaint.

Shortly after filing the complaint in April 2021, the Guard member withdrew it. 

But two other officers in the Wisconsin Guard were still assigned to examine the allegations in two separate investigations.

One determined in July 2021 that the allegations against Zyzda Martin were unsubstantiated.

The other was conducted by Brig. Gen. Robyn Blader, who did not interview Zyzda Martin for the investigation until Nov. 9, 2021, the day after Zyzda Martin was fired. Blader ultimately concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated and gave May a report in January 2022.

But Blader wrote that Zyzda Martin was negligent for not imposing a no-contact order for the Guard member until a month after the initial complaint was made and did not do enough to ensure a safe working environment for the female Guard member.

No substance to complaints against officer 

Throughout 2021, as the pandemic continued, dozens of Guard members from units nationwide came through Volk Field, to be tested for COVID before deploying overseas.

Part of Zyzda Martin’s job was to coordinate that operation, along with other large-scale training exercises held on the base.

At one point, she had to move people out of the housing at Volk Field in order to prepare for an incoming Guard unit that was arriving for training. She moved two Puerto Rican Guardsmen, one of whom had a back injury, to a hotel. An anonymous complaint was filed against her, saying that by moving them to a hotel and reporting the back issues to the National Guard Bureau, which covered their stay, she violated their privacy.

Zyzda Martin later told a Guard investigator she needed to free up space on the base for her staff to clean and sanitize the rooms to ensure they were safe for the incoming unit.

“I needed to give my staff time to clean the building because of COVID cleaning procedures. I had limited staff to do this. It had nothing to do with the … personnel,” she said in an interview for the investigation conducted by Col. Gary Pelletier, who found the allegation to be unsubstantiated in September 2021. 

In March 2021, Zyzda Martin’s secretary, a female state employee who had also worked as a secretary for May, filed a workplace complaint against Zyzda Martin through the state Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She alleged that Zyzda Martin bullied and ignored her during the three months they worked together. When a Guard investigator reached out to interview the secretary who filed the complaint, she did not respond and ultimately resigned.

According to the investigation, which concluded in June 2021, no one who worked in Zyzda Martin’s office observed her berating or bullying her secretary. 

Blader, the investigator in the case, found the complainant “struggled with consistency in her position with (Zyzda Martin) and previous Commander (May,) often requiring prompting and or reminders.”

“The Complainant was defensive and did not take constructive criticism well, often becoming emotional, defensive and argumentative insisting that the way she had been doing things worked well for the previous Commander,” Blader wrote in her report. 

Ultimately, Blader found the complaint against Zyzda Martin to be unsubstantiated.

A man and a woman in military clothes sit at a table.
Col. Leslie Zyzda Martin, former commander of Volk Field, meets with Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Wisconsin on Aug. 10, 2021. Hokanson visited to observe a training exercise at Volk Field. (National Guard, SSgt Anya Hanson and SFC Katie Theusch)

Despite the earlier allegations leveled against her, Zyzda Martin said she believes the Volk Field sexting case was the nexus for her firing.

Zyzda Martin was supposed to determine appropriate discipline for the female Guard member at the center of that case, who had also worked for May when he was in command at Volk. 

Because of the sensitive nature of the allegations, Zyzda Martin wrote detailed memos on Guard letterhead to document the conversations she had about the case at the time. 

She found the female Guard member took photos in Volk Field offices, in bathrooms and showers at Volk Field headquarters, where the female Guard member would be at work in a uniform, change into stripper clothes in her office and take the photos. She sent the photos to several Volk employees on the base during work hours.

“The photos show the gravity of the situation that I can’t share with words,” she wrote in 2021 in her case notes.

According to those notes, she spent six months consulting with May, Guard lawyers and state human resources officials about the case.

Both Knapp and May tracked the progress of her thinking and deliberations on the matter, according to Zyzda Martin. About three weeks before she was fired, Knapp called her out of the blue and wanted to know when her report on her discipline decision would be completed, according to a memo Zyzda Martin wrote at the time. Although she had nearly two weeks before it was due, Knapp urged her to make it a priority and finish it as soon as possible. 

Ultimately, a week and a half before Zyzda Martin was fired, she decided to terminate the Guard member accused of sexting. She shared that determination with May, who confirmed to Zyzda Martin that he shared it with Knapp. 

Days after Zyzda Martin’s termination, May reversed the decision and reinstated the female Guard member, according to Zyzda Martin, who was told of the reinstatement by several Guard colleagues.

Fired despite glowing reviews

The night before Zyzda Martin was fired, May texted her: “I am ready to meet with you about the outcome of the first two investigations in which you were a subject.” 

He told her to meet him at the air traffic control conference room at Volk Field at 10:30 a.m.

“Yes, sir,” Zyzda Martin wrote back, according to the texts of their exchange.  

When Zyzda Martin showed up, May launched into his script.

“I was not allowed to ask any questions,” Zyzda Martin said, noting that the “one-way conversation” was not typical for military terminations, especially at her rank as colonel. 

He read from a statement that lasted about two minutes. There were a few other Guard members also in the room listening.

“He was alluding to the fact that my military career was over but since he made it clear it was a one-way conversation and he was so Machiavellian, I did not respond,” she said. “I have been in the military over 30 years and have never been talked to like that, even as a low-ranking enlisted.”

“I’m a 30-plus-year colonel, with an impeccable career, and he treated me like I’m a naughty little 8-year-old,” she said. 

A man and a woman in military clothes hold a flag and look toward the camera.
Col. Leslie Zyzda Martin receives a military flag from a fellow commander in 2015 as she takes over an Iowa Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance unit. Before she came to Wisconsin to lead Volk Field, much of Zyzda Martin’s military experience was in intelligence operations and integration. (Staff Sgt. Linda K. Burger)

According to records of her job reviews, Zyzda Martin’s performance evaluations from past Guard jobs going back more than a decade are glowing. “World class intel officer/leader/mentor,” “Incisive leader and intel pro with clarity of vision and purpose!” and “Visionary” were all used to describe her leadership as past supervisors recommended promotion.

Even the Wisconsin Guard endorsed her application to attend a prestigious training school, affirming that she was deserving of further professional development, just weeks before her firing. 

“Maybe (in Wisconsin) I was supposed to look like reform and change, but not be it,” Zyzda Martin said.

‘They wanted her to have to suffer’

In the months after her firing, Zyzda Martin asked the Guard for her personnel and disciplinary records in the hopes of finding answers.

After several months of no responses from the Guard, Zyzda Martin sued the National Guard Bureau, which handles records requests from Guards in each state. Within a month of filing the lawsuit, the Guard began slowly releasing her records. Zyzda Martin continued to receive them until early 2023 and dropped the lawsuit. 

Now, she and her attorney are petitioning a military records board to correct her records. She also wants the Evers administration to investigate her case.

Zyzda Martin’s attorney, Antoinette O’Neill, a retired Air Force lawyer, called it bizarre to be fired “for cause” with no cause specified more than three years later. 

“To me, it shows that they knew she hadn’t done anything wrong,” she said. “They just wanted her out, and that they wanted her to have to suffer. And I don’t understand it.”

In November 2023, O’Neill requested that Evers initiate a specific investigation permitted under Wisconsin’s Code of Military Justice, Article 138, which provides for military members to request an investigation if they believe they’ve been wronged by a commander. 

In a letter to Evers, O’Neill argued that Evers should look into the matter as commander in chief because Zyzda Martin already unsuccessfully sought redress with May and Knapp. 

In January 2024 Evers’ chief legal counsel Mel Barnes responded, stating she believed O’Neill was requesting a court-martial of Knapp, a completely different type of military justice process. But even so, Barnes wrote, Evers was deferring a decision on whether to look into Zyzda Martin’s case to “allow for the completion of an inquiry by the Governor’s Office.”

O’Neill was baffled by the response.

“We never use the word ‘court-martial’ because that’s not at all what we’re trying to do. Those are unbelievably different processes,” she said. “I mean, it’s almost as if we got an AI answer from a bot.”

O’Neill sent an email in February clarifying her request, but has not received a response from Evers’ staff.

“A complaint under Article 138 is not a request for a court-martial at all,” she wrote. “As you can tell by our filing, it (is) a complaint of wrongs by a commander against a subordinate.”

Colonel Leslie Zyzda Martin at a glance

Hometown: Sioux City, Iowa

Age: 56

Family: Married to a retired military officer with no children. Zyzda Martin’s father came to the United States as a child, rescued from the concentration camps during World War II. Her grandfather was in the Polish Army.

“My grandpa was very thankful and they were all very thankful to make it to the United States,” she said. “My grandpa, he’d always talk to me about serving.” 

Why the Guard: She joined the Guard because she could enlist on her own and stay close to home. She initially served one weekend a month as a traditional Guardsman while working full time as a trauma nurse, then began working for the Guard full time after going through Officer Candidate School where she was trained as an intelligence officer. 

Notable Guard roles: She completed more than 15 deployments to the Middle East and Afghanistan from 2006 through 2014 during the U.S. wars there. She has served in major commands, air combat command, joint command, Joint Special Operations Command, and at the National Guard Bureau.

In 2014 she served as the Air National Guard adviser to the Air Combat Command, Director of Intelligence, meaning she represented all Air National Guard intelligence missions at the Pentagon, ensuring they were properly funded, organized, trained, and equipped to complete their missions.

Military awards: Defense Meritorious Service Medal, awarded in June 2021, for her service before coming to Volk Field, from 2017 to 2020.

Current job: South Carolina National Guard, serves as the NGB representative to Air Combat Command Information Warfare Division, stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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