San Antonio Express
By Gary Martin
WASHINGTON — House members sharply criticized two Air Force generals Wednesday for a culture that allowed pervasive sexual abuse of recruits at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, and for “significant” delays in reporting the crimes.
Lawmakers from both parties took turns at a congressional hearing voicing their displeasure and pressed the generals about steps the Air Force is taking to stop sexual abuse.
Rep. Nikki Tsongas, D-Mass., said the sexual assaults were a “crime that continues to shock us with its regularity.”
“In order for changes to really take hold, the culture of the military has to change,” said Tsongas, co-chairwoman of the House Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus.
Gen. Mark Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, told the hearing of the House Armed Services Committee that sexual assault is not confined to Lackland.
Related Slideshow: See a photo gallery detailing events of the Lackland abuse scandal.
He said 796 sexual assaults were reported in the Air Force last year.
“It's unacceptable. We are giving it our full attention,” Welsh said.
But during one terse exchange, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, another sexual abuse prevention caucus co-chairman, scolded Welsh for characterizing the incidents as bad behavior — like binge drinking.
“It's not bad behavior — it's a crime,” Turner said.
Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., applauded the Air Force for its current investigations into reported sexual abuse at Lackland, but said he was troubled by what has occurred on the San Antonio base.
“I am particularly disturbed to learn that there was significant delay reporting the allegations to the proper authorities when they first came to light,” McKeon said.
He said “equally troubling is that no action was taken by local leadership when the reporting delay was uncovered.”
McKeon met with Air Force officials at Lackland last year, and the committee held a closed-door meeting with top brass as the scandal grew.
Further congressional hearings into sexual abuse at Lackland and within the armed services have not been ruled out by McKeon.
The hearing comes after increased national attention and political pressure. Some 78 lawmakers are seeking a full congressional inquiry into the Lackland scandal.
The Air Force has identified 59 victims at the San Antonio base who were abused. The number of instructors under investigation for sexual assault has grown to 32.
Air Force officials released a report last year documenting a “leadership gap” at Lackland that allowed predators to prey on recruits, who were forced into storerooms and closets, where many of the assaults took place.
That report said training instructors often were insulated from superior officers, creating a climate that allowed assaults to continue.
An advocate of sexual assault victims in the military, California-based Protect Our Defenders, has called on Congress to expand the scope of the hearings and take investigations out of the hands of military commanders reluctant to advance reports of sexual assaults.
“The cycle of repeated scandals, self-investigations and ineffective reforms must be broken,” retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Norris, a sexual-assault victim and Protect Our Defenders board member, told the hearing.
During tearful testimony, Norris said she was assaulted when she served at Keesler AFB in Mississippi. She said the military culture has since become more vicious, and a broken military justice system “punishes the victim.”
No Lackland victims were called to testify.
Gen. Edward Rice Jr., head of the Air Force training command at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, told the hearing there were insufficient safeguards and leadership oversight to stop the crimes.
Rice said the assaults at Lackland, which is under his command, took place over a three-year period, and involved 4 percent of the trainers.
Still, Rice said, “it is completely unacceptable to us that so many of our instructors committed crimes.”
Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-San Antonio, whose congressional district includes Lackland, said the Air Force must learn from the scandal to protect men and women in the military.
Castro, a member of the Armed Services Committee, met with Rice privately after his testimony.
“I'm hopeful that lessons have been learned and that action is taken to ensure that something like this never happens again,” said Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, also a member of the committee. Gallego's congressional district borders the base.
Rice tapped Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward last year to conduct the Air Force investigation. He said the service branch has implemented 23 of 46 recommendations that were included in the investigation report.
The recommendations include establishing more oversight authority, increasing the number of instructors, and simplifying and encouraging the reporting of sexual abuse.
A Special Victims Counsel also is being established to provide quick protection for victims who come forward.
But Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., questioned Rice on why Lackland instructors not involved in the scandal were not interviewed by Woodward for their input on “whistleblower protections” or changes that need to be made.
“One of the things that we heard from them, which was really surprising, was that nobody actually asked them,” Davis said.
Another California Democrat, Rep. Jackie Speier, asked incredulously why none of the victims was interviewed.
Despite assurances of progress by the generals, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said that “every single airman is watching the situation and watching our victims to see how they're being treated.”
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