By Jeremy Herb
The scope of the sexual misconduct scandal at Lackland Air Force Base was “stunning,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told a congressional panel Wednesday.
Welsh, who testified at the House Armed Services Committee’s first hearing on the widespread scandal at the Texas air base, vowed to “never stop attacking this problem” of sexual assault.
The magnitude of the problem at Lackland was “stunning to most of us in the Air Force,” Welsh said. “There’s simply no excuse, no justifiable explanation and there’s now way we can allow this to happen again.”
The Air Force is still finishing up its investigation into the scandal, which involves nearly 60 victims and in which 32 basic training instructors have been investigated.
Welsh said the Air Force was in the process of implementing more than 40 recommendations in the wake of the scandal, such as the creation of a special victims council.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) both said what happened at Lackland was “disturbing.”
McKeon said that the committee would be considering further legislation to help address the problem of sexual assault in the military, but said that the issue has to be addressed by military commanders up and down the ranks.
“This is a problem that has plagued the military for far too long,” Smith said.
Rice said that the Air Force leaders were taking responsibility for what occurred.
“It is completely unacceptable to us that so many of our instructors have committed crimes or violated our policies, and we clearly failed in our responsibility to maintain good order and discipline among too many of our instructors,” Rice said.
Some lawmakers remained skeptical over how seriously the Air Force was taking the problem.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) questioned why the Air Force had not included interviews with victims at Lackland in its report and recommendations. Speier said she was frustrated Rice had not responded to a November letter she’d written him about including victims.
Speier said she was introducing a bill Wednesday that would change the Uniform Code of Military Justice so that trainers who have sex with trainees would be guilty of sexual assault — regardless of consent.
Welsh told Speier that any military trainers who have a sexual relationship with trainees did not have a place in the Air Force, but said he’d have to look at the language more closely before weighing in on the legislation.
Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who has been one of the more active Republicans on military sexual assault, said that he “cringed” at a comment from Welsh, which he said highlighted the disconnect the military’s culture can have when it comes to sexual assault.
“You said we have to stop bad behavior. It’s not bad behavior — it’s a crime,” Turner said, prompting some advocates in the hearing room to break out into applause.
Welsh responded that he was referring to bad behavior that comes before a crime is committed.
The Air Force chief said there were pockets within the Air Force where the culture was a “major problem” that allows scandals like Lackland to occur.
“I don’t believe that everybody in United States Air Force accepts the culture of sexual assault,” Welsh said.
Before the hearing, the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders held a press briefing where members who were not testifying at the hearing spoke.
The group, which had a member testifying Wednesday, said it was pleased that the committee had moved forward with a public hearing on the issue. But its leaders said the hearing was a missed opportunity because victims’ voices were not on the witness list.
“This hearing is woefully lacking in relevant victim testimony, what I call source material,” said Paula Coughlin-Poupolo, a member of the group’s advocacy board. “When you ask a victim in the military ... they will come forward with a solution, not just a complaint.”