Newsmonger: Congress will hold Lackland hearings

The House Armed Services Committee announced last week it will hold hearings on the sex abuse scandal that has continued to widen at Joint Base San Antoinio-Lackland over the past year, following the committee chairman's much-criticized visit to the base just three days prior. HASC Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon angered advocates when, after his surprise three-hour Lackland visit on September 9, he characterized Lackland's growing scandal as "a few people who go beyond the bounds of propriety and misuse the authority they've been given." McKeon insisted he had confidence the Air Force was effectively cleaning up at Lackland, where to date 17 military training instructors have been charged or investigated for crimes ranging from aggravated sexual assault to improper sexual relationships with trainees. The official victim-count from the Air Force shrunk last week from 43 female trainees to 39.

For months members of congress and victims of military sexual assault had called for McKeon and the HASC to hold open congressional hearings to root out just what had led to the assaults at Lackland and, more broadly, sexual assault in the whole armed forces. By Wednesday last week McKeon and the HASC had changed tone.

Claude Chafin, HASC spokesman, told the Current in an email last week the full committee will hold a public hearing after prosecutions at Lackland have cleared. He wouldn't clarify on a timetable, or whether there's a plan for what specific items should be addressed during the hearing.

The Defense Department's own data suggests that Lackland is far from an isolated incident, rather the latest flare-up of what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called a "silent epidemic." Based on the Pentagon's most recent survey, 19,000 victims are sexually assaulted within the military each year – it's estimated only 14 percent of victims report the assault.

Nancy Parrish with the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders insists the military justice system has failed to keep the problem in check, describing a command climate that blames victims and fails to take reports of rape and sexual assault seriously.

Parrish points to data showing that of the 3,122 reports of rape and sexual assault within the military in fiscal year 2011, only 240 went to trial. Of the 191 service members convicted, 122 were dishonorably discharged or dismissed from the military, meaning the rest faced lesser punishments like fines and demotion.

"What we see is a military justice system so very weighted against the victim," Parrish said.

Parrish and other advocates also worry the trial of Staff Sgt. Kwinton Estacio last week sets an alarming precedent for other Lackland prosecutions down the road. Military Judge Lt. Col. Matthew Van Dalen acquitted Esctacio of the most serious charge against him, aggravated sexual assault, after the victim in the case, a young female Air Force recruit, failed to articulate a specific threat against her at trial.

The 19-year-old victim testified that after two months of obeying orders from Estacio she was too afraid to resist when Estacio made advances in a dark supply room.

Asked why she didn't resist, the woman testified, "I was too scared to. … Sometimes when somebody's too scared to talk, does that mean they want to do something?"

Estacio was sentenced to one year in prison after pleading guilty to charges of obstruction and for having sex with a trainee in violation of Air Force rules. The nearly-identical case against Staff Sgt. Craig LeBlanc is set to go to trial on October 9 – LeBlanc is charged with aggravated sexual assault, obstruction and for violating rules banning sexual relationships with trainees.

Bearing on the cases that have come to light at Lackland, a congressional hearing must probe how trainers may be abusing the inherent power imbalance in boot camp, and whether sex between trainer and trainee should ever be considered consensual, says retired Air Force Tech Sgt. Jennifer Norris, an advocate with a Military Rape Crisis Center who was sexually assaulted in while in the Air Force.

During the summer trial of Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, who was eventually convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison, trainees testified Walker would tell women under his command he was a god, accountable to no one.

"The power imbalance in the military training instructor environment is something that's not really being addressed at these trials," Norris said. "That's what makes this crime so heinous," she said. "It's a psychological crime."

The abuse at Lackland isn't new, either. Between 2002 and 2011, 24 Lackland instructors, most of them men, faced administrative or criminal charges due to illicit conduct with trainees, the Express-News reported last month. All but 10 of those cases were handled in confidential, closed-door administrative hearings, shielding the details of those cases.

Heightened attention to sexual assault in the military pushed Secretary of Defense Panetta to bump sexual assault investigations up the chain of command to a higher-ranking colonel, while also calling for special victim units in each branch of the military to stem the problem.

Two key commanders at Lackland have been shown the door as the scandal unravels. Lt. Col. Mike Pacquette, commander of the 331st Training Group, where most of the accused instructors worked, and Col. Glenn Palmer, who arrived a year ago to head the 737th Training Group, were both relieved of duty, with Air Force officials citing a "lack of confidence." This weekend the Air Force appointed Col. Deborah Liddick as commander of the 737th.

The Air Force has yet to release details from a recently completed investigation by Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward. The investigation should shed light on whether a culture of silence and tolerance for sexual abuse fueled the scandal at Lackland.

Still, victims and advocates are unconvinced the Pentagon's reforms are enough, and during a congressional hearing on the Lackland scandal they're sure to bring up a measure introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee, that would hand responsibility for sexual assault cases to an independent civilian agency within the Defense Department.

"Career-ending action against instructors and their commanders who ignore the rules or sweep these cases under the rug is what's required," Parrish said.

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