Why Won't Congress Investigate the Sex Abuse Scandal at Lackland Air Force Base?
Lackland Air Force Base. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, has become the center of the nation's biggest military sex abuse case in years. Over the past several months, a widespread sexual crime epidemic that began in 2009 has been uncovered at the camp, with twelve of 475 of the base’s instructors accused of either rape, sodomy and aggravated sexual assault, among other offenses, and thirty-one female trainees identified as victims.
Now dozens of lawmakers are calling for a Congressional hearing to investigate the incidents at Lackland. But there’s no sign that one will happen anytime soon.
Last week, West Texas’s Republican Congressman Mike Conoway said he didn’t think “congressional theater” would help anything. (Good to know he takes his job seriously). Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson was a little less harsh—she first said a hearing was appropriate, then backed off a bit and told Fox News that Congress should let the military finish its investigation first.
Democratic Representative Jackie Speier fears that the military investigation will work to protect its own people, including the perpetrators. The number of cases being exposed at Lackland reflects a systematic failure of military leaders to report these crimes, she said. Speier therefore is pushing for an investigation that would be conducted outside the very system that allowed these crimes to happen.
As of Monday evening, seventy-seven Congressional representatives—including one Republican, Walter Jones—had signed on to a letter that Speier sent to House Armed Services chairman Buck McKeon and ranking member Adam Smith asking to hold a hearing to investigate the incident.
“How could such a repetitive widespread and sickening behavior still be occurring?” Speier said on the House Floor last month. “What is being uncovered at Lackland flies in the face of what we are being told by our military. Is this what zero tolerance means in the military?”
The stories that have emerged from Lackland are shocking.
At a hearing last month, two female former trainees told a courtroom that they were pressured to have sex with two of their male instructors. The men called them over the intercom under false pretense and asked them to leave their dorm rooms, then led them to a supply closet where one of the men had sexual intercourse with one of the women, while the other woman performed oral sex on the other male instructor.
The San Antonio Express-News, which has been thoroughly covering the scandal, reported this from the hearing’s testimonies about that night:
“Keep it to yourself,” [Staff Sgt. Kwinton] Estacio reportedly told his alleged victim on her way out.
Defense attorneys have emphasized that the men did not threaten the women that night. The women never told them no and never told them to stop.
But the trainees said that saying no was not an option. The consequences seemed unfathomable.
“I really truly don't know what they would've done,” one of the women said. “And that's more terrifying than knowing what someone is going to do.”
And more and more information keeps surfacing about what some instructors have allegedly done. Staff Sgt. Luis Walker was the first to be accused of sexual abuse at Lackland in June last year, and that claim sparked an investigation into what was going on behind closed doors at the camp. Walker alone now faces twenty-eight counts, including rape, aggravated sexual assault and adultery. He now faces up to life in prison and a dishonorable discharge. His court martial began Monday.
Lackland is where every American airman goes for basic training. Approximately 35,000 recruits pass through the base every year, a fifth of whom are women. But of the instructors, only 10 percent are female.
Of the many cases slowly being revealed at Lackland, most were by instructors against trainees, and almost all remained in secret until recently. After the allegations were made against Walker last year, the Air Force began an investigation proving the problem was pervasive at the camp, and recently put the number of victims at more than thirty.
Speier said in an e-mail to The Nation that since trainees are taught to follow every order, “if that instructor calls you into a dark supply closet and tells you to have sex with him, you do it. It’s a betrayal and violation of power.”
But despite these court proceedings, fear still exists among former trainees. An airman at Lackland who admitted he had illicit sexual contact with one woman got off without a bad-conduct discharge through a plea deal, and soon after said he had had sexual contact with ten women. But he can’t be prosecuted until those ten women step forward, and they have yet to do so.
That’s why Speier and her colleagues want to move the investigation out of what she called the military’s “broken justice system” and hold a Congressional hearing to look into launching their own investigation.
Last Monday, vice chairman of the committee Representative Mac Thornberry told the San Angelo Standard-Times that currently “there is no evidence of a widespread problem,” but if there is, Congress should step in.
What evidence of a problem could Thornberry be waiting for? According to the Department of Defense, one in four women who join the military will be raped or sexually assaulted. And according to a report released last year by the department, 71 percent of women and 85 percent of men who experienced unwanted sexual contact chose not to report it.
“When [the Department of Defense’s] leadership clearly fails to solve a crisis for these long standing and epidemic proportions, we must demand that Congress do its job,” said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, an organization dedicated to combating the prevalence sexual violence in the military. “We can no longer turn a blind eye to the systematic failure.”
Protect Our Defenders started a petition Wednesday also demanding a hearing, and had crossed 3,000 signatures by Monday evening.
“There is no reason to wait for a Congressional hearing on this matter and there is no reason this should be a partisan issue,” Speier said in the e-mail.
But so far, there’s still no word from the committee.