Top Air Force brass told a congressional panel Wednesday that they had made progress in addressing the underlying problems of culture and discipline that led to repeated cases of sexual misconduct at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, calling sexual assault in the ranks "a cancer."
The generals' accounts were challenged by victims, who called sexual assaults in the military "epidemic" and insisted that alleged perpetrators be independently investigated and prosecuted outside the military chain of command.
The hearing before the House Armed Services Committee in Washington started with testimony by the Air Force's top commander, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, and Gen. Edward D. Rice Jr., head of the training command at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. Lackland is part of the San Antonio-Randolph complex.
As of this week, 32 basic training instructors at Lackland have been under investigation and 59 possible victims of sexual misconduct have been identified by the base. A report in mid-November said that a faulty command culture and "leadership gap" at Lackland helped fuel the widening scandal.
Rice noted that "the vast majority of our instructors served with distinction in a very demanding duty assignment." However, he added, "We clearly failed in our responsibility to establish order and discipline among our instructors."
Six basic training instructors at Lackland have been convicted of sexual misconduct dating to 2008, two were given a nonjudicial punishment, and nine trials are pending. Next week, Staff Sgt. Eddy C. Soto faces a possible life sentence in the alleged rape of a female airman.
Initially, Rice said, trainers at Lackland believed the assaults were the actions of "a few bad apples."
"They've had to recognize they have a significant part to play in addressing the problem," he said.
Rice said that there had been cases at Lackland in which a commander decided "a court-martial was not the appropriate venue" for discipline and instead "used some of the other tools available to them uniquely in the military justice system," including nonjudicial punishment. But he said that did not mean the accused had escaped justice.
He noted that the length of time trainers serve had been reduced from four years to a maximum of three years, limiting their exposure to recruits at the Air Force's main site for basic training, where about 500 trainers churn out about 35,000 new airmen annually.
Of 46 recommended improvements submitted by Chief of Air Force Safety Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward as part of her investigative report on Lackland last year, Rice said the Air Force had completed half and expected to have most of the rest done by the end of the year.
The Air Force has created "special victim teams" of two dozen military investigators trained to handle sexual assault cases; they go to work later this month. Sixty additional military lawyers have been trained as "special victims counsel," and the Air Force plans to hire and assign a victim advocate to every installation by October.
"The evidence indicates that our efforts are making a difference," Rice said in the televised hearing, noting that there had not been any reports of sexual misconduct in the last seven months.
However, reported sexual assaults in the Air Force increased nearly 30% last fiscal year to 796, according to testimony the generals submitted to the committee.
Welsh, who called sexual assaults a cancer, said victims needed to be better encouraged to come forward to pursue charges against their assailants, and that the military needed to do a better job of screening trainers.
The hearing did not include testimony from the alleged sexual assault victims at Lackland, nor from those charged or convicted in connection with the investigation. But two Air Force veterans who said they were sexually assaulted years ago did testify.
"It breaks my heart to see the same problems today that existed when I joined 16 years ago," said retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Norris, who said she was assaulted four times while serving, the first time as a 24-year-old recruit at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.
Norris, 40, appeared on behalf of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group based in Burlingame, Calif. Norris, a member of the group's board, said she had talked to another alleged victim from the Air Force just this week and that many more were still afraid to speak up.
"If you want a career, you don't want to say anything because you get retaliated against; you get beat up and thrown out. We need to remove the chain of command from the reporting process — it's absolutely detrimental," she said, adding that as a military sexual assault victim, "You almost become a leper." She testified that two of her attackers pleaded guilty, but others were never charged.
Retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Cindy McNally told the committee that she was assaulted during her training in the 1970s at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois and at a later post. She said the solution was not just to promote more women into military leadership.
"Doing what's right is genderless," said McNally, who was representing the Service Women's Action Network, a New York-based advocacy group. McNally said she reported the first incident but it was never pursued; she didn't bother to report the subsequent assault.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who visited Lackland with a congressional delegation last year and has proposed legislation to remove such cases from the military chain of command, noted that after Britain experienced a similar military sex scandal in 2006, it created a separate unit within the military to prosecute sexual assaults. A year later, she said, the effort was deemed a success.
Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-San Diego), also part of the delegation to Lackland, said she had been disappointed in the military response to the scandal, but was "reluctant to take this out of the chain of command" because "to pull this out in some way says we don't believe our officers are capable of dealing with this issue."
"We are doing a better job of training prosecutors" to handle military sexual assaults, she said, "but it is still a big problem."