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How the Air Force is fighting sexual assault, post-Lackland scandal

The sexual assault scandal at Lackland Air Force Base, the subject of a House hearing Wednesday, is prompting the service to grapple with the need for change. Here's an inside look at how the Air Force is going about it.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III (l.) and Air Force Gen. Edward Rice, Jr., testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on sexual misconduct by basic training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base.

In the days before Congress held Wednesday's hearing on the now-infamous sexual assaults at Lackland Air Force Base, senior Air Force officials and advisers met at the Pentagon to hash out just how to tackle the problem within the ranks.

Their discussion closely mirrored the questions that lawmakers raised during Wednesday's hearing, including, “How could there have been such a systematic breakdown of leadership?” and “Is the US military inadvertently creating an environment more conducive to sexual harassment?”

On this point, the Air Force’s highest ranking officer, Gen. Mark Welsh III, was candid about what he sees as the keys to solving the problem. 

“Why, on what was undoubtedly the worst day of a victim’s life, did they not turn to us for help?” he asked. “We are missing something fundamental in human-to-human interaction that will allow them to feel safe enough to come to us and report and let us put our arms around them and help them through this horrible event in your life,” he added in his testimony Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee. “That’s at the heart of the problem.” 

At Lackland, the Air Force identified 59 victims of sexual assault and misconduct. In a wide-ranging investigation that involved  at least 7,700 interviews by 550 investigators, the Air Force has begun disciplinary proceedings against 32 instructors, roughly 4 percent of the instructors who have served in basic military training over the past three years.

Combing through the last year of sexual assault statistics, US military officials found a statistic that particularly troubled them: Nearly one-third of victims who agreed to participate in the prosecutions of their alleged offenders changed their minds before the trials, and decided not to cooperate with the prosecution.

On a recent winter day in a classified meeting room deep in the Pentagon, representatives from the Air Force’s education programs, from basic training to ROTC, are trying to pinpoint how to make sure the newest members of the Air Force get the message that leadership actually wants to know if they have been hurt – and that those preying on their fellow troops will be found and prosecuted with new tools that the force has not used in the past.

“It’s not just ‘Don’t sexually assault people.’ This is a piece of respect – how do you weave that in? It’s about how you lead people, how you treat people," says Brig. Gen. Eden Murrie, director of Air Force Services, the meeting leader. “That’s what we’re doing today. We’re looking at everything. Does it need to be radically changed? Do we just tweak it around the edges?”

On dry erase boards and PowerPoint slides around the room are names of programs that the Air Force is using to try to impart the unacceptability of assault and disrespect to its troops. They run the spectrum from “Frank: The Undetected Rapist” to “Street Smarts: You Deserve to be Here” to “Sex Offenders, Service Members, and You: Leadership Beyond the Obvious.” 

Conversation turns to “hunting season” at the Air Force Academy, the time when underclassmen have completed their first year of schooling and are then allowed to date upperclassmen. 

“That would offer a really good opportunity for conversation: ‘What do you think of that term?’ Let’s talk about maybe why we don’t want that in our culture anymore,” says Anne Munch, an attorney and sexual assault prevention consultant for the Pentagon.

“That’s a really good idea,” says Murrie.

“And how does this idea coincide with the idea of being a wingman?” adds another meeting attendee. The Air Force has been emphasizing the notion of bystander intervention, the idea that when a fellow airman is being harassed, someone should step in and stop it.

“Or being a leader? You can’t be a hunter on a base, either,” says Murrie. “How do you recognize the hunters that key in on new people on a base?”

A few days later, at the House Armed Services Committee, these same questions came from lawmakers, who recounted stories of new Air Force recruits being directed to meet their trainers in laundry rooms and broom closets, where they were sexually assaulted and raped.

Welsh told lawmakers he is combing through programs to try to figure out what works, and what doesn’t.

He testified that he has asked staff to “bring in something new” every week. “Something we haven’t tried, some idea they found somewhere else from a member of Congress, from an advocacy group, from a university or another service that tried something that seemed to work at a certain base or a certain demographic group,” he said.

On Friday, the Air Force announced that it had conducted a sweep of more than 100 installations for pornography and other offensive materials, from videos and calendars to coffee mugs and song lyrics. 

“While these things may or may not directly relate to sexual assault, they certainly do create an environment more conducive to sexual harassment and unprofessional relationships, and I personally believe that both of those are leading indicators for sexual assault,” Walsh said Wednesday.

“We have to do everything possible to prevent this. We can’t accept this,” he added. “It’s horrible, and we all know that.”

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