Air Force chief says sexual assaults are a 'cancer' to be stopped

Female members of the Air Force participate in morning drills in 2010. Female members of the Air Force participate in morning drills in 2010. United States Air Force

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Walsh said on Wednesday that sexual assault within the service is a “cancer” that must be excised, according to the Associated Press.

Speaking at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Welsh said that the Air Force was “actively investigating” allegations of sexual assault, misconduct and unprofessional relationships by military training instructors toward trainees and technical training students.  Welsh said that preliminary numbers showed the Air Force had a record of 796 reported sexual assaults in fiscal 2012, up 30 percent from 614 reported cases in fiscal 2011.

The Defense Department as a whole reported 3,192 instances of sexual assault in fiscal 2011, and Welsh said that the actual number may be much higher after accounting for underreported cases and that the problem extended across the military.

“I want to emphasize today, just as [Air Force] Secretary [Michael] Donley did in August, that sexual assault and unprofessional relationships are unacceptable, they have no place in our culture, and their prevalence rips at the fabric of our great Air Force,” Welsh said in a statement.

The hearing was called to review the ongoing investigation surrounding cases of alleged sexual assault at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. In June, the service was shaken by a widening report of a number of sexual assaults at the base where vast majority of airmen -- more than 35,000 -- are trained each year.

In his testimony, Welsh said that the Air Force identified 59 “confirmed and alleged” victims at the base, and that all had been offered support from the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program.  

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said that this wasn’t enough. "While I applaud the Air Force for pursuing in-depth investigations to find answers to these questions, I am particularly disturbed to learn that there was significant delay reporting the allegations to the proper authorities when they first came to light,” McKeon said in a statement.

Protect Our Defenders, a group advocating for increased measures to prevent military sexual assaults, said that Wednesday’s hearing was the beginning of a series of “fundamental reforms” to protect service members from sexual assault.

“The Lackland scandal must become more than another footnote in this tragic history,” retired Tech Sgt. Jennifer Norris said in a statement.

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