January 24, 2013 — Weaknesses in the chain of command and reluctance by servicewomen to report misconduct have allowed sexual assaults in the military to continue unabated, senior military leaders testified on Wednesday at a congressional hearing, the New York Times reports (Risen, New York Times, 1/23).
The House Armed Services Committee convened the hearing in response to reports of sexual assaults at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio. An investigation in November found that 32 military instructors allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct with 59 trainees, the Air Force said. Six instructors have been convicted of sexual misconduct, two have received nonjudicial punishments, nine are awaiting courts-martial and 15 are still under investigation (Lardner, AP/San Jose Mercury News, 1/23).
The hearing took place the same day that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the military's ban on women in combat, which will drastically expand the presence of women on the front lines (Barnes/Nissenbaum, Wall Street Journal, 1/23).
Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh testified that the ways military culture fuels sexual assault is not unique to Lackland but is widespread throughout the service. He cited internal investigations that showed a failure of leadership, trainers lacking maturity and instructors who were improperly trained (Oliveri, CQ Roll Call, 1/23).
According to Welsh, one of the largest barriers to curbing sexual assault in the military is that women are reluctant to report incidents because of fear of reprisals and harassment. Gen. Edward Rice, commander of the Air Education and Training Command, said that only "a handful" of the 59 victims identified at Lackland had reported the assault (New York Times, 1/23).
Welsh and Rice said that the Air Force has implemented half of the 46 recommendations produced by internal investigations. Another 22 recommendations will be in place by November, and a proposal for a shorter basic training period is under review.
However, survivors' advocates at the hearing said the military's response has been inadequate and unlikely to ensure prosecutions or deter sexual assaults from occurring in the future. Attorney Susan Burke, who has represented sexual assault survivors, said, "The military is not able to solve this problem," adding, "The definition of insanity is to do the same thing again and again and expect a different result" (Alexander, Reuters, 1/23).
NYT Columnist Says Sexual Assault is 'Biggest Safety Concern' for Servicewomen
In a column commending the Pentagon for lifting the ban on women in combat, the New York Times' Gail Collins writes that the "biggest safety concern" for servicewomen is not necessarily enemy fire but being sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers.
However, "[a]llowing women to get the benefits of serving in combat positions won't make that threat worse," she states, adding, "In fact, it might make things better because it will mean more women at the top of the military, and that, inevitably, will mean more attention to women's issues" (Collins, New York Times, 1/23).