Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh apologized Friday for comments he made last week that a "hook-up mentality" among America's youth might be responsible for some sexual assaults in the military. The comments were criticized by members of Congress and victims' advocacy groups.
In a meeting with reporters, the Air Force's top general said he was sorry to the victims of sexual assault who saw his comments as blaming victims. "This crime is horrible - I think my position on this is pretty clear - but in view of the fact there are victims who took what I said as blaming them, boy, I am sorry about that." He added, "There is nothing that is farther from the truth as far as how I personally feel or how any service chief or commander in our Air Force feels."
Welsh said that his response to a question from Sen. Angus King (Ind -Maine) at a congressional hearing was trying to explain the cultural piece of the sexual assault problem.
Last week Welsh told King that 20 percent of the young women who go into the Air Force report having been sexually assaulted in some way before enlisting. "So they come in from a society where this occurs. Some of it is the hook-up mentality of junior high even and high school students now, which my children can tell you about from watching their friends and being frustrated by it. The same demographic group moves into the military. We have got to change the culture once they arrive. "
On Friday he said, "We have to get at instilling from the day people walk in the door in our Air Force this idea of respect, inclusion , diversity and value of every individual. And I didn't say that at the hearing and I wish I had. "
"We have a problem with respect for women that leads to many of the situations that result in sexual assault in our Air Force," Welsh said. "In many of the cases, it's friends who get together. Typically alcohol is involved. And at some point during the evening, if it's a man on a woman, the man basically just shows a lack of respect for the woman, who is incapacitated, and commits a crime. It's not a mistake. It's not bad behavior. It's a crime."
He called taking on sexual assault "my No. 1 priority" and that the Air Force was not simply paying lip service in trying to do away with sexual assault.
"There is absolutely no place for this," he said. "We get criticized a lot for saying that a lot and yet nothing changes. Well in my mind you have to keep saying it a lot while you're trying to change. Saying it is much better than not saying it because that creates a different view inside the Air Force. "
Welsh said he was open to considering all options for stopping sexual assault, including congressional legislation that would remove the authority to prosecute sexual assault cases from the chain of command. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later said at a Pentagon news conference that he too was willing to consider the notion.
Welsh characterized as a "game changer" a new Air Force initiative called the "Special Victims Counsel Program" that assigns Air Force attorneys to advise victims of sexual assault through the legal process.
In place since just January, the pilot program has significantly reduced the number of cases in which victims go through the legal process only to later decide they do not want to pursue prosecution against their alleged assailants. While that used to happen in 30 percent of the cases, in the 300 cases in which counselors have been assigned, only two individuals have chosen not to pursue a prosecution.
In another positive development, 55 percent of the victims assisted by the counselors have switched their cases from the restricted category to the unrestricted category that allows for prosecution. That's a significant increase from the 13 percent who have done so in the past.