If you’re trying to prevent a crime, shouldn’t you talk to survivors to find out their viewpoint? Not in the Air Force.
Yesterday, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the widespread sexual misconduct at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where all members of the Air Force attend basic training. Along with AAUW Board of Directors member Kathy Braeman, I tried to attend the hearing, but most of the seats were reserved for members of the military, so we watched on television from an overflow room.
A recent investigation found that 32 military training instructors allegedly engaged in coercive sexual relationships with 59 recruits and Air Force members. During the hearing, Gen. Mark Welsh, the service’s chief of staff, and Gen. Edward Rice, head of Air Education and Training Command, told members of the committee that several instructors have been convicted and others are still under investigation.
Welsh and Rice testified that after 18,000 interviews with service members, there are 46 recommendations that the Air Force is starting to implement, including better training of Air Force members, a required target that 25 percent of basic training instructors be women, and creation of special victim units to help survivors. Just like the other military branches, however, the Air Force does not want to change the authority commanders have over the reporting and disciplinary process in these cases, even though clearly there are commanders who abuse their authority.
During the Q-and-A portion, I was shocked to learn from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) that not a single survivor who had come forward was interviewed during the Lackland investigation. Speier said she even wrote a letter in November requesting that survivors’ voices be included — and she was ignored. Unbelievable!
Advocate groups ensured that two people who work with military sexual assault survivors (and are survivors themselves) could testify about the problem, but when it was the survivors’ turn, the two generals and the members of the military in the audience left. Given the late hour, most of the congressional members were gone, too. It is shameful that these witnesses’ voices were not heard by as many people as possible. I found their testimonies very compelling, especially that of Jennifer Norris, a retired Air Force technical sergeant who now works for Protect Our Defenders.
In her testimony, she urged the Air Force to create an independent body to handle sexual assault and rape cases. “Thirty-nine percent of female victims report their perpetrators were of higher rank, and 23 percent say it was someone in their chain of command,” she pointed out. “The Air Force Lackland report indicates a failure of leadership. How many more times must Congress hear this before enacting lasting reform?”
While the generals testified that there had been no incidents of sexual assault over the past seven months, Norris said that just that morning, a survivor in the Air Force called Protect Our Defenders seeking help. “It breaks my heart as an advocate to see the same issues today that I saw 16 years ago,” she said.
I appreciate that she also pointed out that “this is not a male versus female issue, but it’s a predatory issue.” Fifty-six percent of the people Protect Our Defenders assists are men.
I feel frustrated that survivor voices were ignored during the investigation, were stifled during the hearing, and then that the hearing and the issue were less prominent in the news cycle once the military announced (coincidentally … ) the end to the combat ban for women.
How can true change occur within the military if the viewpoints and recommendations of those most impacted are excluded? Once again, I am proud that AAUW is standing by military sexual assault survivors through the lawsuits we support through the Legal Advocacy Fund. And I am glad that The Invisible War ensures an audience for their stories.