Today’s announcement from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to lift the military ban on women serving in combat represents a huge victory for equality in the military. While the historic decision means that servicewomen will be eligible to join the infantry or even special ops, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh today called military sexual assault a “cancer” and the troubling issue only seems to be more virulent.
The House Armed Forces Committee held a hearing today to discuss the multiple sexual assaults at Lackland Air Force Base, one of the largest sex scandals in military history, as well as in the entire U.S. military. According to today’s testimony from Gen. Welsh, 59 members of the Air Force, including three men were victims of sexual assault and misconduct, from 32 basic training instructors at the branch’s only basic training base. A handful of instructors have already been convicted, several more are awaiting trial, and the rest still under investigation. One of those instructors, an Air Force sergeant is due to stand trial in July for rape and multiple counts of aggravated assault. Moreover, the incidence of sexual assault in the Air Force increased an alarming 30 percent in 2012 compared to the previous year, with 796 cases reported last year to 614 cases in 2011.
Although Gen. Welsh stated the Air Force “clearly failed”, he insisted he “will never stop attacking this problem”and pledged to make a stronger effort to reduce criminal behavior from the branch he commands. But an assault victim who testified in the Congressional hearing, said newly enlisted recruits are intimidated from speaking up in fear that it could be a detriment to their military careers. Jennifer Norris, who retired from the military after 15 years of service, due to traumatic stress disorder had been suffered two assaults in her career when she was raped by a recruiter and sexually assaulted by three NCOs.
Now working with the Military Rape Crisis Center and the Protect Our Defenders advocacy group, Norris was one of the speakers to testify on behalf of other women who have been brutally raped or assaulted, and stated that 39 percent of female victims were assaulted by someone with a higher rank and 23 percent within their chain of command. She also described how some airmen would conspire to lure an unsuspecting victim into a situation where there were no other witnesses, how others were too scared to make a report for fear they would be kicked out of the Air Force and others who were raped after being subdued with chemicals. The former Air Force sergeant also stated that clearly there is a “failure of leadership” while victims, mostly women, are suffering and becoming disabled “due to prolonged exposure to the abuse, harassment, sexual assault and retaliation by their own military family, at all levels in the chain of command.”
Under Gen. Welsh’s command, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations conducted more than 7,700 interviews with alleged perpetrators, victims and witnesses. With investigations still continuing, he mentioned the newly created “Special Victims Counsel”, which was recently expanded to basic military trainees and technical training students. The program is meant to assist victims of assault and serve as counsel, but there remains the issue of fear of appraisal. But Gen. Welsh confessed that despite his “ten years of work in this area, we’ve made no difference.” He also said that this issue is not just the Air Force, “it is a U.S. military problem, a national problem, and a global problem as well.”
Statistics from a 2010 Gallup poll revealed that 19 percent of women and two percent of men in the Air Force have experienced some degree of sexual assault. With more reported incidents occurring in the last two years, it only means the percentage of sexual assaults are increasing and that is a deeply unsettling thought.
While the news from the Secretary of Defense was welcome for many women in the military, the thought of more sexual assaults in combat, means the U.S. military must take greater measures to take care of those who serve their country, despite the looming presence of budget cuts. Military leaders have acknowledged the “cancer” amongst their ranks. Now is the time to eliminate and control the disease that appears rampant and nearly out of control.