The pattern of sexual assaults against new recruits at Lackland Air Force Base that began to come to light last year was a major institutional failure, two of the service’s top generals told Congress Wednesday.
Figuring out how to make sure it never happens again is a daunting challenge, but they insist they’re throwing everything they have at the problem.
Lackland is the Air Force’s boot camp. Virtually every new enlistee attends training at the San Antonio base, and after sexual assault reports surfaced there, the Air Force launched its own inquiry, going back 10 years. Officials interviewed airmen who’d been through basic military training there and wound up concluding that at least 32 training instructors engaged in sexual assault or other violations involving at least 59 recruits. Gen. Edward Rice, the commander of Air Force Education and Training Command, said most of the problems appeared to have happened over the last three years.
“It is completely unacceptable to us that so many of our instructors have committed crimes or violated policies. We clearly failed in our responsibility to maintain good order and discipline among too many of our instructors in basic military training,” Rice told the House Armed Services Committee.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, was similarly contrite. But he said the Air Force is committed to understanding the problem and combating it for as long as it exists as an institution.
“We can’t accept this. It’s horrible, and we all know that,” he said. “But I don’t believe the entire Air Force has a culture of sexual assault. I believe there are units and places over time where we create pockets where culture is a major problem. That’s what happened at Lackland. But I don’t believe that everybody in the United States Air Force accepts a culture of sexual assault. We have officers and civilians who have daughters who are working side-by-side with airmen around the world. They’re not going to tolerate a culture of sexual assault.”
More needs to come forward
The Air Force investigation so far has turned up 59 victims of sexual assault at Lackland, but the true number is almost undoubtedly higher. As in civilian society, victims are reluctant to report their experience to authorities.
And most of those 59 victims became known to the Air Force only as a result of a massive investigation that interviewed thousands of people for cases that ranged over a period of years. Very few of them ever made a report to their commanders, Rice said.
“That’s totally unsatisfactory,” Rice said. “We’ve got to find a better way of connecting with them. I think the investigation broke some ground for us in how to do that better as an institution. How we talk to people and the persistence with which we engage them is very key to this. We also know that while victims oftentimes themselves won’t talk to us for any number of reasons, they do talk to other people. They talk to friends, they talk to family, they talk to co-workers. By engaging those people in the right way, we have been able to get a great deal of information on the cases that we have today.”
Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said getting more victims to come forward is at the top of his mind. He’s still unsure why they don’t. “Every time I talk to an Air Force audience, I ask the question: Why, on what was undoubtedly the worst day of a victim’s life, did they not turn to us for help? We stand beside them in combat, we go to war together, we protect each other’s lives, and we talk about [sexual assault] constantly,” he said. “We are missing something fundamental in the human-to-human interaction that will allow them to feel safe enough to report and help them through this horrible event in their life. That’s the heart of the problem.”
Jennifer Norris, a former Air Force technical sergeant who now works with the advocacy and support group Protect our Defenders, said Welsh’s question has a fairly straightforward answer: If servicemembers want to report that they’ve been a victim of sexual assault, their only avenue for doing so is through their own chain of command.
“When you’re a lower-enlisted service member, you’re new to the institution. You haven’t been able to establish the credibility necessary to make a claim against someone who’s been in for 18 years and appears to be the right-hand man of the commander,” said Norris, a sexual assault survivor who said she only came forward to her command after enduring multiple sexual assaults. “If you want a career, you don’t want to say anything. Because you’re the one that gets retaliated against. You’re the one who gets thrown out. You’re the one who gets beat up.”
No longer under the radar
Norris said the only way the military services can get more victims to report is to take the reporting process outside of the victim’s chain of command and put it in a separate legal structure. She said while military commanders have power over virtually everything their troops do, empowering them to be the final word on how or whether to move forward on sexual assault claims is an undue concentration of authority.
“I’m not saying every commander is a bad person, but to put that decision authority in one person’s hands is a lot for that commander. But it’s also a lot for the rest of us,” she said. “If he or she decides one thing and I don’t agree with it, what recourse do I have? None.”
The Air Force says it recorded 796 reports of sexual assault last year, up from 614 in 2011. The Pentagon has previously said it thinks more reporting is not necessarily an indicator of more sexual assaults. Rather, it believes it’s a sign that more people are coming forward to report crimes that would have gone under the radar previously.
Welsh said he believes there are behaviors among airmen that are leading indicators for sexual assault: Binge drinking, sexual harassment and work environments that are uncomfortable for fellow airmen. Those cultural factors are something he says the Air Force is just beginning to understand.
Looking for new ideas
“We have made a huge effort recently to start getting to a discussion at the small-unit level of treating each other respect. The feedback we’re getting from that effort is interesting, because it’s clear that we haven’t done enough in that area. There are people who don’t feel valued,” he said. “We have a certain population in our Air Force that has been going along to get along by ignoring things that they’re uncomfortable with in their workplace, whether it’s mannerisms, thing’s hanging on the wall in the workplace, whatever it might be.”
Welsh said he gathered more than a hundred commanders in Washington in late November to talk about sexual assault and to send the message that he’s serious about eliminating it. He said he’s also meeting every week with an Air Force task group he set up to tackle the problem.
“What I’ve asked them to do is to bring something new every week, something we haven’t tried,” he said. “Then we talk about the logic of implementing those things. We have to create a battle rhythm where we’re talking about this, where we’re implementing new idea, and stopping the ones that don’t work. It’s no different than the way we operate aircraft every day.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-8 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.