(MintPress) – U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III reemphasized the branch’s commitment to protecting airmen from sexual assault last week as he testified at the House Armed Services Committee hearing regarding an investigation into sexual misconduct at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
“This collection of events at basic military training has been stunning to most of us in the Air Force,” Welsh said, referring to the alleged inappropriate or coercive sexual relationships that date back to 2008 between at least 32 military training instructors and 59 recruits at Lackland AFB, which houses the Air Force’s Basic Military Training Program that every enlisted service member must attend.
Welsh referred to sexual assault in the military as a “cancer,” saying “the impact on every victim, their family, their friends, the other people in their unit is heart-wrenching.”
Preliminary Air Force figures show 796 reports of sexual assault cases in 2012, a 30 percent increase from 2011, when 614 cases were reported. However, Welsh believes the number may be much higher since many cases are never reported.
“There’s no justifiable explanation and there is no way we can allow this to happen again. The Air Force goal for sexual assault is not simply to lower the number. The goal is zero. It’s the only acceptable objective,” Welsh said.
As a result of the widescale investigation that began in 2011 and included at least 7,700 interviews by 550 investigators, the Air Force has begun proceedings against the alleged perpetrators. Six instructors have been formally charged in courts-martial on counts of adultery, rape or conducting unprofessional relationships. Nine instructors are awaiting courts-martial while 15 others remain under investigation.
Military advocacy groups will be paying close attention as the Air Force implements 46 recommendations, adopted from the investigation, that address prevention and reaction to cases of sexual assault.
In December, the Air Force announced the implementation of a victim advocacy program that goes above and beyond the requirements in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which requires the availability of legal services to victims of sexual assault.
The Special Victims’ Counsel Pilot Program, scheduled to run for one year starting this month, has been commended by military sexual assault advocates as a new program that will provide attorneys to sexual assault victims who request legal counsel.
“We hope others adopt this program,” said Greg Jacob, the policy director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). “If executed the way it’s proposed and the way it’s written, I think it will change how the military handles sexual assault cases,” he said.
Where are the Survivors?
“The pilot program sounds like a good idea,” said Holly Kearl, program manager for the American Association of University Women’s Legal Advocacy Fund. “I am glad that sexual assault survivors in the Air Force who decide to make a report will hopefully be able to receive better assistance,” said Kearl, who specializes in rape, abuse and domestic violence.
Kearl believes the Air Force is moving in the right direction with initiatives like the Special Victims’ Counsel Pilot Program; however, she has reservations about the Air Force’s overall approach to curbing sexual assault in light of important flaws she noticed about the Lackland scandal investigation.
During the question-and-answer portion of last week’s Congressional hearing, Kearl was shocked to learn from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) that not a single survivor who had come forward at Lackland was interviewed during the investigation.
Speier, who serves as the honorary chair of the military advocacy group that supports women and men in uniform who have been raped or sexually assaulted by fellow service members — Protect Our Defenders — addressed the topic in a statement to General Welsh at the hearing:
“General Welsh, we all had a meeting about this document. We talked about 17,000 hours. We talked about 32 staff. General Rice referenced 7,700 interviews. And not one of the victims — not one of the 50-plus victims at Lackland was interviewed. Forty-six recommendations came out. But how can any of those recommendations be complete without first having talked to at least some of the victims?”
Welsh did not deny Speier’s claims when he replied: “I don’t think the effort can be complete until we have a chance to talk to the victims.”
Speier said she sent a letter to General Edward D. Rice Jr., the head of Air Education and Training Command at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, requesting the survivors of sexual assault be included in the interviews; Speier said she is still waiting for a response.
Two survivors of military sexual assault were allowed to testify at last week’s hearing, but according to Kearl, the two Air Force generals and members of the military left the audience before the survivors had an opportunity to speak. Neither of the survivors who testified were involved in the current Lackland scandal.
Jennifer Norris, a retired Air Force technical sergeant who now works for Protect Our Defenders, was among those to testify.
Norris said in her statement, “Thirty-nine percent of female victims report their perpetrators were of higher rank, and 23 percent say it was someone in their chain of command.”
“Since August, the [Department of Defense] estimates roughly 10,000 more men and women in uniform have been assaulted,” she said.
“Why didn’t the Air Force interview the victims to determine if they tried to report or feared reporting?” asked Norris, adding later, “According to the DOD’s own data, 47 percent of servicemembers are afraid to report because of the reprisals that occur.”
Errors in chain of command
“Very few people report their assaults and one reason is, given the reporting process, they may have to report it to the perpetrator or to a friend of the perpetrator,” Kearl explained to Mint Press News.
“Even in cases where they would not have to report it to someone who is not impartial to the incident, the commanders have so much discretion over the issue that they can give light sentences (allowing the perpetrator to be a repeat offender within the military and perhaps at home) or do nothing at all about it,” she said.
According to Department of Defense, less than 13.5 percent of the estimated 22,800 violent sexual crimes across all branches of the military in 2011 were actually reported. Nancy Parrish, founder of Protect Our Defenders, wrote in a letter to Congress last June, that “20 percent of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted.”
“Male service members are not immune from this epidemic,” Parrish added. “In 2010, out of the 19,000 estimated sexual assaults, 10,700 involved male victims.”
Protect our Defenders believes the current military adjudication system lacks independence not only because victims must report sexual abuse to commanding officers but also because military judges cannot hear sexual assault cases until the commander refers them.
Military advocacy groups recommend a separate civilian system be implemented for reporting and prosecuting sexual assault as a way to increase the number of reported cases.
In response to issues of command, the Air Force is in the process of implementing an increase in the percentage of female basic training instructors across all bases. The goal is for one in four training instructors to be female.
“Both the increase in the percentage of female basic training instructors and the special victims units are positive developments, though we will have to see how they are implemented to know if they will be effective,” Kearl said.
“And, of course, now the lifting of the combat ban for women is another positive development for many reasons, including that it can lead to more women in leadership positions,” Kearl added, referring to U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement last week to lift the military’s combat ban for women.
Kearl hopes the generals in attendance at last week’s sexual assault hearing will follow through and listen to the survivors before implementing the recommendations from the Lackland investigation. “But right now, they seem ready to move forward with the 46 recommendations that were made without survivor input,” she said.
Sexual assault: a broad-spectrum issue
While the Lackland investigation has put a spotlight on the Air Force’s response to the scandal, other branches of the military are not immune from sexual assault. According to the Pentagon’s 2011 annual report, there was a 58.5 percent increase in reported sexual assaults at military service academies. West Point in particular was found out of compliance with DOD sexual assault prevention policy.
Protect Our Defenders states on their website, “The traditional military culture is not conducive to resolving issues of sexual assault and harassment, and sexual violence continues to infect the armed forces.”
“Going forward, we would like to see congressional and military leadership step outside the box and take steps to create a sea change in military culture, and the treatment of women in particular,” Anu Bhagwati, Executive Director of Service Women’s Action Network and former Marine Corps Captain, said in a press release last week.
“We need a multi-pronged approach to ending this systematic dysfunction within the military by ending legalized discrimination against service women, moving sexual assault case disposition away from military commanders and into the hands of impartial military prosecutors, and opening up civil courts to service members so that the criminal justice system is not their last hope for justice,” she said.
Military advocacy groups like SWAN and Protect Our Defenders will be monitoring both the Air Force and other branches of the military as the United States Armed Forces takes further steps to protect servicemembers from future sexual assault and misconduct comparable to that at Lackland AFB.
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