Targeting Air Force sex abuse

The branch chief said victims must feel free to come forward.

Posted: January 24, 2013

WASHINGTON - Likening sexual assault in the Air Force's ranks to a cancer, the service's top officer resolved Wednesday to tackle the problem by screening personnel more carefully and putting an end to bad behaviors like binge drinking that can lead to misconduct.

But Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, underscored the challenge by telling a House oversight committee that the service recorded a disturbing number of reports of sexual assault last year even as it worked to curb misconduct after a sex scandal at its training headquarters in Texas. Dozens of young female recruits and airmen at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio were victimized by their instructors who sexually harassed, improperly touched, or raped them.

Most difficult, Welsh said, is transforming a culture in which victims are often reluctant to report what happened because of guilt, shame, or fear they won't be believed.

"Why, on what was undoubtedly the worst day of a victim's life, did they not turn to us for help?" Welsh said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. "We are missing something fundamental in the human-to-human interaction that will allow them to feel safe enough to come to us and report."

An Air Force veteran who was sexually assaulted while serving - but not at Lackland - described how intimidating it is for young enlisted personnel to speak up.

"You're stuck," Jennifer Norris told the committee. "If you want a career, you don't want to say anything because you get retaliated against." Norris, who said she medically retired in 2010 with post-traumatic stress disorder, said the Air Force and the other military branches have a sexual-assault epidemic and a broken system of justice.

All U.S. airmen report to Lackland for basic training. About 1 in 5 recruits is a woman; most instructors are men.

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