The Air Force's top officer told lawmakers Wednesday that he was stunned by the sexual misconduct reports at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and vowed to eliminate the "cancer" of rising sexual assaults in the service.
"The Air Force has recommitted itself to ensuring that every airman is treated with respect. It's not a one-time fix. It has to be a way of life. This collection of events at basic military training has been stunning to most of us in the Air Force There is simply no excuse for it. There's no justifiable explanation and there is no way we can allow this to happen again," Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff for the Air Force, told the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday. "The Air Force goal for sexual assault is not simply to lower the number. The goal is zero. It's the only acceptable objective."
"The impact on every victim, their family, their friends, the other people in their unit is heart wrenching and attacking this cancer is a full time job, and we are giving it our full attention," Welsh added.
The Air Force officer's remarks came as the House Armed Services Committee held its first ever hearing on the sex scandal involving 32 military training instructors who allegedly sexually assaulted or maintained "unprofessional relationships" with 59 male and female victims at basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base.
"It is completely unacceptable to us that so many of our instructors have committed crimes or violated our policies, and we clearly failed in our responsibility to maintain good order and discipline among too many of our instructors in basic military training," Gen. Edward Rice, commander of the Air Education and Training Command at the U.S. Air Force, said.
Welsh and Rice highlighted that sexual misconduct extends beyond just basic military training and exists throughout the entire service.
According to preliminary numbers from the Air Force provided by the two officers to the committee, 797 reports of sexual assault, which range from inappropriate touching to rape, were made in the fiscal year 2012, up nearly 30 percent from the 614 reports from fiscal year 2011. The final official numbers for 2012 will be included in the Department of Defense's report to Congress at the end of April.
"Calling these numbers unacceptable does not do the victims justice. The truth is, these numbers are appalling!" Welsh said in a statement.
The Air Force has implemented new reporting procedures that would require incidents of misconduct or maltreatment to be reported up the chain of command within 24 hours and for the alleged offender to be removed immediately from the position until a review is conducted. But advocates working on behalf of sexual assault victims in the military are calling for the reporting to be taken out of the chain of command.
"Why is it that commanders in the military are given this special position that in society we have civilian courts, we have supreme courts, we have the ability to appeal. We have all these different options available to us, but in the military we have one person that may or may not help you," Jennifer Norris, who is retired from the Air Force and was a victim of sexual assault during her time in the service, said.
Victims of the sex scandal at Lackland Air Force Base did not testify at the hearing. Norris, who is a member of the advocacy board of Protect Our Defenders, said she hopes the hearings will lead reforms that will "change a military culture and fix the broken military justice system."
"In my work as an advocate, it breaks my heart to see this same kind of behavior in 2013 that existed when I joined 16 years ago," Norris said as she broke down in tears.