Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, meets each week with a sexual assault prevention team at the Pentagon to combat sexual misconduct and abuse in the service.
Gen. Welsh talked about his weekly meetings Wednesday, when he testified before the House Armed Services Committee about the Lackland Air Force Base sex abuse scandal, which has led to charges against 32 instructors and identified as many as 59 victims.
The Air Force chief of staff appeared with Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr., commander of Air Education and Training Command, who acknowledged that a key challenge to eradicating sexual assault is learning how to better connect with victims so that they feel comfortable coming forward to report the crime.
“We have a system of getting feedback, but it’s not effective enough. We’ve got to find a better way of connecting with them … We know that you can’t just ask the question once,” Gen. Rice said, adding that the Air Force has asked Rand Corp. to study the problem. “The key to solving the problem … we are missing something fundamental in human-to-human interaction … that’s at the heart of the problem.”
Gen. Rice said the Air Force already has implemented 23 of 46 recommendations from an internal review of the Lackland case, and that 22 others would be in force by the end of the year. He said one of the recommendations is not applicable to the Air Force.
Gen. Rice stressed that most Air Force instructors serve with distinction and that sexual predators must be identified and screened out. He said it is “unacceptable to us that so many instructors have committed crimes.”
The Lackland case began in 2009, but the assaults did not come to light until 2011.
“If the people do not trust who is leading them, then the whole system breaks down,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the committee’s ranking Democrat. “This is a problem that has plagued the military far too long. At the end of the day, the culture needs to change.”
The Pentagon estimates that 19,000 sexual assaults occur every year among the armed services, but only a few thousand are reported and about 200 end in convictions.
Part of the reason is that victims — men and women — do not report assaults for fear of reprisals, said Nancy Parrish, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.
Brian Lewis, 33, said he faced reprisals when he was serving onboard a ship as a 20-year-old Navy fire control technician in August 2000 and was raped by a noncommissioned officer.
He said his command refused to pursue an investigation because it would “look bad for the ship,” and he was forced to go back out to sea with the perpetrator, who is now retired from the Navy. He said he began carrying a knife in case he was attacked again.
“The chain of command explicitly ordered me not to talk to the Naval Criminal Investigation Service,” Mr. Lewis said in an interview with The Washington Times before the hearing. “I eventually ended up pushed off the ship and sent to San Diego where I was ultimately discharged with a personality disorder.”
A Baltimore resident, Mr. Lewis estimated that about 56 percent of the Pentagon’s 19,000 sexual assault victims are men.
He had a message for sexual assault victims, male and female: “We need you to come forward. We need you to have the courage that you had when you agreed to serve the country to come forward and tell your story.”