The House Armed Services Committee is scheduled Wednesday to open Congress' first open hearing into a massive sex abuse scandal at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio.
Authorities are investigating 32 Air Force instructors on allegations of sexual abuse, rape and other assaults involving 59 trainees that began in 2009 but came to light in 2011.
"This scandal at Lackland, one of the nation's largest military sex scandal in history, needs to be fully investigated by the Congress," said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit advocacy group for sexual assault victims in the military.
Wednesday's hearing comes after the group had petitioned the committee to hold an open inquiry after it had scheduled a closed-door session in August.
Witnesses slated to testify include Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, and Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr., commander of Air Education and Training Command. A sexual assault victim — retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Norris — also will testify, along with advocacy groups.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has called sexual assault a "silent epidemic" in the military.
According to recent Pentagon statistics, about 19,000 cases of sexual assault occur among service members each year, but only a few thousand are reported. Of those, about 200 cases end in a court-martial convictions.
Ms. Parrish said many victims — men and women — don't report assaults against them for fear of reprisals. Those who step forward often are given psychotropic drugs and then watch their careers begin to be destroyed with letters of reprimand, she said.
She faults what she calls a broken military justice system that puts a victim's chain of command in charge of reporting the abuse and allows it to fall under "individual bias and abusive authority."
"First of all, we may be too fearful to go to the commander because they might be really good friends with the person who actually did the crime. The commander could be the one who did the crime," Ms. Norris told NBC News on Tuesday.
The Associated Press reported this week that sex-related offenses are responsible for 30 percent of military commanders losing their jobs.
Last year, the Pentagon introduced safeguards for victims and witnesses who step forward, such as elevating the level of command at which an initial report of sexual assault is reported.
One board member of Protect Our Defenders is Paula Coughlin, a Navy helicopter pilot and admiral's aide, was sexually assaulted in 1991 as she walked through a hotel hallway lined with former and active-duty officers at the annual Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas.
She recalls telling her commander about the assault and being told, "That's what you get." Internal Navy and Pentagon inspector general investigations were launched, but she said she went to the media after no one responded to the incident as if it were a crime.
Ms. Coughlin eventually lost her career after she stepped forward to report the case, in which more than 80 women reported being sexually assaulted or harassed during the convention.
She says hopes that public attention and action eventually emerges from Wednesday's hearing.
"Having hearings [Wednesday] may afford Congress a chance to put a check in the box, or they look closely and determine they really need to expand the scope of their investigation," Ms. Coughlin said.
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