A US Air Force general has referred to sexual misconduct within the service as a “cancer”, shedding new light on the extent of the problem in wake of a sex scandal that occurred at the Air Force training headquarters.
Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the US Air Force, disclosed disturbing sexual assault statistics at a congressional hearing on Wednesday. Sexual assault ranging from inappropriate touches to rape has been on the rise, with 2012 seeing 796 reported cases. Last year’s figures show a 30 percent increase from 2011, during which 614 cases of sexual assault were reported, according to AP.
“Calling these numbers unacceptable does not do the victims justice,” Welsh said in a testimony in front of the House Armed Services Committee. “The truth is, these numbers are appalling.”
Welsh pledged never to stop attacking the problem, which he said might be greater than currently believed, since many cases go unreported. US airmen are responsible for conducting most of the sexual assaults, which raises an alarm over the problem among the Air Force’s own members.
All of these airmen have at one point reported to the training headquarters at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, which is the site of a major scandal that erupted two years ago. Starting in 2009, 43 female trainees were allegedly assaulted – and in many cases, raped – by their military training instructors during and after basic training. An investigation led to the termination of 35 such instructors, including two commanders who oversaw the men. There are about 500 military training instructors who oversee about 35,000 airmen, 7,000 of which are women.
Fifteen instructors are currently still under investigation for charges ranging from adultery, rape and acting unprofessionally, while six have been convicted and nine more are waiting for their courts-martial.
But punishing the offenders in the Lackland sex scandal does little to tackle the problem. Welsh attributes the rising number of sexual assaults to a culture in the Air Force that needs to be addressed. Binge drinking and the sharing of obscene sexual images, songs and stories may contribute to the inappropriate actions of the airmen.
“A young man who routinely binge drinks and loses control of himself is going to conduct bad behavior,” Welsh said. “That bad behavior could result in sexual assault. Let’s stop the binge drinking.”
But the problem of sexual assault has a greater range than just the Air Force. Almost half of all US military women deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan say they were sexually harassed or assaulted, with 47 percent of those alleging the perpetrators were US military men who held a higher rank.
“Women in the armed forces are now more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in combat,” Newsweek’s Jesse Ellison wrote last year. And similarly to that of the US Air Force, the inappropriate behavior among US troops is at least partially attributed to a sexist culture.
“It comes down to culture. (It) hasn’t changed, no matter what the generals or the secretaries of defense say about zero tolerance,” California Rep. Jackie Speier told USA Today in December. “They have not scrubbed the sexism… out of the military.”