In the summer of 2011, a single trainee came forward to claim she was raped by her instructor at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. By the time the House Armed Services Committee met last week for a hearing on Lackland, the scandal had mushroomed to at least 59 victims accusing some 32 instructors of misconduct.
House members criticized top Air Force officials, saying they condoned a culture that let pervasive sexual abuse of recruits fester, and dragged their feet in pursuing crimes once they surfaced.
"I am disturbed to learn that there was significant delay reporting the allegations to the proper authorities," said committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif). "Equally troubling is that no action was taken by local leadership when the delay was uncovered." The hearings were a first step in what many lawmakers and advocates hope will be a full congressional inquiry into the Lackland scandal.
Testifying Wednesday, Gen. Edward Rice Jr., head of Air Force Training and Command, and Gen. Mark Welsh III, Air Force Chief of Staff, conceded that safeguards to stem sexual assault had fallen woefully short. Past fixes — like internal ad campaigns or the "wingman rule" — haven't worked. "We're certainly not reversing the trend in a dramatic way," Welsh said.
When the general classified the problem as "bad behavior," like "a young man who routinely binge drinks and loses control of himself," Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) balked.
"This is violence," Turner said. "It's not bad behavior, it's a crime."
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif) fumed that Air Force officials never interviewed current Lackland victims for their own internal investigation into the scandal, which recommended a number of reforms the Air Force says it is implementing. "How can any of those recommendations be complete without first having talked to at least some of the victims?" she said.
Retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Norris was one of two sexual-assault victims who testified last week, saying, "The cycle of repeated scandals, self-investigation, and ineffective reforms must be broken." Fighting tears, Norris told committee members how she was sexually assaulted at Keesler Air Force Base soon after she joined the service.
Past promises of zero-tolerance from the Defense Department have not fixed a military justice system that "punishes the victim," Norris said.
"By not dealing with a culture that provides easy targets for predators, we are hurting our military and our society," Norris added.
Norris referenced a 2011 lawsuit filed against the Department of Defense by over two dozen women who were sexually assaulted in the military. Heeding the DOJ's argument, a federal judge dismissed the case, calling the assaults "incident to plaintiffs' military service."
"Had I known that the military dismisses rape as an occupational hazard, I would have never joined," Norris said.
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