WASHINGTON – Likening sexual assault in the Air Force's ranks to a cancer, the service's top officer resolved Wednesday to tackle the problem by screening personnel more carefully and putting an end to bad behaviors like binge drinking that can lead to misconduct.
But Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, underscored the challenge by telling a House oversight committee that the service recorded a disturbing number of reports of sexual assault last year even as it worked to curb misconduct in the wake of a sex scandal at its training headquarters in Texas. Dozens of young female recruits and airmen at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio were victimized by their instructors who sexually harassed, improperly touched or raped them.
Most difficult, Welsh said, is transforming a culture in which victims are often reluctant to report what happened because of guilt, shame or fear they won't be believed.
"Why, on what was undoubtedly the worst day of a victim's life, did they not turn to us for help?" Welsh said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. "We are missing something fundamental in the human-to-human interaction that will allow them to feel safe enough to come to us and report."
An Air Force veteran who was sexually assaulted while serving – but not at Lackland – described how intimidating it is for young enlisted personnel to speak up.
"You're stuck," Jennifer Norris told the committee. "If you want a career, you don't want to say anything because you get retaliated against." Norris, who said she medically retired in 2010 with post-traumatic stress disorder, said the Air Force and the other military branches have a sexual assault epidemic and a broken system of justice.
The scandal at Lackland, now known as Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, continues to unfold nearly two years after the first victim came forward. All U.S. airmen report to Lackland for basic training. The base has about 500 military training instructors for about 35,000 airmen who graduate every year. About 1 in 5 recruits is a woman; most instructors are men.
The initial results of Air Force investigation released in November described abuses of power by instructors who took advantage of a weak oversight system to prey on young recruits.
The inquiry has found that 32 military training instructors allegedly engaged in inappropriate or coercive sexual relationships with 59 recruits and airmen at Lackland, according to the Air Force. Three of the most recent alleged victims are males.
Six instructors have been convicted in courts-martial on charges ranging from adultery, rape and conducting unprofessional relationships. Nine more instructors are awaiting courts-martial. Two more received nonjudicial punishments. Fifteen 15 instructors remain under investigation.
The Air Force has changed the way it selects officers and instructors who train new recruits and reduced from four to three years the amount of time they can spend as instructors, said Gen. Edward Rice, head of the Air Education and Training Command. Rice, who testified along with Welsh, said more women are being placed in supervisory roles within the training command. The Lackland scandal has not affected recruiting, Rice said.
"I'm not in any way ready to declare victory," Rice said.
The preliminary figures for 2012 show there were nearly 800 reports of cases, ranging from inappropriate touching to rape, according to Welsh's testimony. That would be a nearly 30 percent increase from 2011, when 614 cases were reported. The number could be much greater, Welsh said, because many cases are never reported.
"It's astonishing, really," Welsh said. "Eight hundred is not acceptable, 600 is not acceptable. 300 is not acceptable. Zero is the only answer."
The 2012 figures are being audited and reviewed before being included in a report the Defense Department will submit to Congress in April, according to Welsh.
Welsh said he has stressed to the Air Force's officer corps and senior enlisted ranks the importance of eliminating sexual misconduct. As part of that effort, Welsh issued a "Letter to Airmen" this month that said images, songs and stories that are obscene or vulgar are not part of the Air Force heritage.
Not everyone who commits sexual assault is a predator, but there are predators in the ranks and they have to be found before they act, Welsh said.
The Air Force also has to identify and stop the activities that can lead to inappropriate actions.
"A young man who routinely binge drinks and loses control of himself is going to conduct bad behavior," Welsh said. "That bad behavior could result in sexual assault. Let's stop the binge drinking."