WASHINGTON — Likening sexual assault in the Air Force's ranks to "a cancer," the service's top officer resolved Wednesday to tackle the problem by screening personnel more carefully and putting an end to bad behavior such as binge drinking that can lead to misconduct.
But Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, underscored the challenge by telling a House oversight committee that the service recorded a disturbing number of reports of sexual assault last year, even as it worked to curb misconduct in the wake of a sex scandal at its training headquarters in Texas. Dozens of young female recruits and airmen at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio were victimized by instructors who sexually harassed, improperly touched or raped them.
Most difficult, Welsh said, is transforming a culture in which victims are often reluctant to report what happened because of guilt, shame or fear they won't be believed.
"Why, on what was undoubtedly the worst day of a victim's life, did they not turn to us for help?" Welsh said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. "We are missing something fundamental in the human-to-human interaction that will allow them to feel safe enough to come to us and report."
The scandal at Lackland, now known as Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, continues to unfold nearly two years after the first victim came forward. All U.S. airmen report to Lackland for basic training. The initial results of an Air Force investigation released in November described abuses of power by instructors who took advantage of a weak oversight system to prey on young recruits.
So far, six instructors have been convicted in courts-martial on charges including adultery and rape.