Air Force addresses sexual assault claims

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

Sexual assaults at U.S. Air Force bases are more widespread than officials first believed, and addressing the problem will require major institutional changes, according to an Air Force report released this week.

Air Force teams investigated 85 installations in the United States and overseas and found that many women failed to report rapes because they feared they would be disciplined. The report said “respondents repeatedly described sexual assault as a cultural issue in need of a compelling and sustained message.”

The four-month probe also found that response programs for victims were inadequate, that the Air Force has lacked a formal sexual assault policy, and that existing training has been sporadic and focused more on sexual harassment rather than rape.

“Addressing sexual assault in the U.S. Air Force requires deep, long-lasting, cultural and institutional change,” Michael J. Dominguez, Air Force assistant secretary for manpower and reserves, wrote in a preface to the report.

Capt. Andre’ Kok of Cannon Air Force Base’s public affairs office said there have been sexual assault cases at Cannon, but he would not comment on how many or over what period of time they have occurred. He said because sexual assault is a societal problem, naturally there would be incidents at Cannon.

He said Cannon is being proactive in addressing issues of sexual assault.

“Commanders have available to them the law enforcement and legal resources they need to protect, investigate, and prosecute sexual assault incidents that may occur as well as the necessary medical and community resources to care for victims,” Kok said.

The study began in February, a year after a sex abuse scandal surfaced at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. The academy has overhauled its top leadership and policies on sexual assault after dozens of current and former female cadets complained they were ignored or punished after reporting assaults.

The report recommends major institutional changes, including developing an Air Force-wide sexual assault prevention and response policy; assigning an office to oversee the policy and programs; integrating databases used to report and track rapes; and requiring pre-deployment sexual assault response training for officers.

“The Air Force must do a better job of defining and understanding the crime of sexual assault and the behavior that spawns it. Ultimately, the Air Force must work through its commanders to create an institutional environment that refuses to accept or facilitate such behavior,” the report said.

The investigation grew as Air Force officials received allegations of rape in the Pacific Air Forces command, which includes bases in Hawaii, Alaska and Japan. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas also called for the force to address reports that up to two dozen women were raped in fiscal year 2002-03 at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls.