WASHINGTON— A House committee grilled the U.S. Air Force brass Wednesday on the military’s investigation and preventative measures taken in the aftermath of a series of sexual misconduct incidents at a Texas base.
Sexual misconduct “is a problem that has plagued the military for way too long,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. “At the end of the day, the culture needs to change.”
Last fall, 59 female trainees reported inappropriate advances by their military training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. The offenses ranged from unprofessional relationships to sexual assault. Four instructors await trial, 20 teachers are under investigation and the Air Force has completed six courts martial cases, all resulting in convictions.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Gen. Edward Rice told the House Armed Services Committee that a two-month investigation has produced 45 preventative measures – almost half of them already in place and others in the planning stages. Major General Margaret Woodward conducted the investigation.
Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Niki Tsongas, D-Mass. and Jon Runyan, R-N.J., questioned the generals about changes they intend to make in the Air Force culture to reduce incidents of sexual misconduct and make victims feel comfortable in reporting improper advances.
Also, Welsh said the Air Force will reduce the amount of time trainees spend with their trainers to deter a “corrosive culture.” In addition, outside leadership from other units will be brought in to bring another perspective to training programs.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., accused the Air Force of simply having inadequate training methods. Training for instructors should instill the future leaders with core Air Force values – which do not condone sexual assault, Coffman said.
“Training is only part of the problem,” said Gen. Rice, commander of Air Education and Training Command. “Some individuals will not be changed with training as they have different views of good and bad decisions. I also need to focus on detecting, deterring and holding [leaders] accountable.”
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., expressed frustration with the Air Force’s current deterrence process. After being subject to a rapid-fire pace of questioning from Sanchez, Welsh conceded that instances exist where a sexual harassment charge would not show up on an officer’s record.
The generals promised the Air Force will not stop at focusing on sexual misdeeds. They plan to identify reckless activities that can lead to sexual crimes, such as binge drinking.
“The biggest thing that needs to be done is committing to dealing with people on an individual level every day by every supervisor in command,” said Welsh. “I don’t think institutional directives will solve the problem. I think that caring for every airman will help solve the problem.”
Committee members expressed dissatisfaction with the degree of punishment imposed on some of the offenders.
According to Rice, 45 of 59 cases could not be prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice as sexual assault due to expressed consent. Instead those cases were dealt with by non-judicial punishment, such as a reduction in rank.
Some congressmen believe non-judicial punishment is insufficient.
After the hearing, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., introduced a bill that would amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice to treat sexual acts between military instructors and their trainees sexual assault, regardless of consent. Allegations of this type would be subject to court martial.
“In a number of these cases, in which [instructors] sexually assaulted these trainees, what can be charged and what can happen to the instructors is greatly reduced,” Speier said. “When you have a power imbalance like that, you cannot presume that consent is appropriate for only someone under the age of 18.”