By Mark Archuleta
On Saturday, U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon held his 3rd Annual Women’s Conference on the campus of College of the Canyons. On Sunday, he flew to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio where 17 training instructors are under investigation for the rape and sexual assault of 42 female recruits.
In a report by The Hill newspaper, which covers the Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, McKeon expressed confidence that an internal investigation by the Air Force will be sufficient.
“Just because a few people go beyond the bounds of propriety and misuse the authority they’ve been given — a very important authority — that does not mean they can’t clean up the problem,” he said. “They’re working on it and I’m convinced going to do a great job of it,” McKeon told Hill reporter Jeremy Herb.
Nancy Parrish, President of Protect Our Defenders (POD), a human rights organization calling upon the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) to conduct an investigation called (Chairman) McKeon’s statements “disheartening.”
“His statements that only a ‘few people’ are responsible at Lackland minimizes the criminal scandal. And his reasons for not opening a hearing and investigation about Lackland, because he received ‘assurances’ from top military commanders that they will do all they can so it doesn’t happen again — does not cut it,” said Parrish.
The Hill reports a meeting between McKeon and the chief of Air Education and Training Command Gen. Edward Rice, other top officials, and with 30 trainees one week from graduation “to find out how the sex scandal involving basic training instructors has affected them and their feelings about the Air Force.”
In August, Col. Glenn Palmer, who had been in charge of basic training for new Air Force recruits at the 737th training group at the Lackland base was relieved of duty.
As a result of the Air Force’s own investigation Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, a former instructor, received a 20-year prison sentence after being convicted of rape and sexual assault of 10 females — many still in their teens. Walker faced 28 charges and was convicted on all of them.
At the other end of the spectrum, Tech. Sgt. Christopher Smith, 33, was sentenced to only 30 days in jail and a reduction in rank to airman first class. He was convicted of developing an intimate relationship with one female trainee and fraternizing with another.
The in-house investigation and hearings are continuing.
After rebuffing POD’s attempts to contact McKeon’s office, staffers met with them in August where they received 2,600 signatures asking for a Congressional investigation. That petition has now grown to a 15,000 signatures. For earlier reporting on the meeting, click here.
Shortly after POD met with McKeon’s office HASC had a closed-door meeting with Air Force Secretary Michael Donley. McKeon defended the committee’s work on the scandal to The Hill.
“I understand people are concerned and think we’re not doing our job,” McKeon told The Hill. “I think we are doing our job and think we’re doing it correctly. It’s very important we make sure that we don’t mess up any investigation and let somebody walk after doing the serious things they’ve been accused of.”
POD officials have decried the closed-door meeting and reiterated their request for a full, public Congressional investigation. They also expressed concerns that members of HASC have the sensitivity to pursue an investigation of rape after Congressman Todd Akin (a member of HASC) when explaining his pro-life position said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Akin has since been denounced by many leaders in the Republican party for his position. In response to an inquiry, McKeon’s office responded shortly after Akin’s statement to assure the public that Akin’s views will not interfere with HASC’s responsibilities.
“It will not at all impact the Committee’s ability to oversee this issue. Rep. Akin is not on the Military Personnel Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over Lackland and other sexual assault issues.”
Fellow Republican Senator John Cornyn (member of the Senate Armed Services Committee) has taken a stronger stand on the issue than the House. He blocked (but eventually allowed) President Barack Obama’s Air Force chief of staff nominee until receiving assurances that the Air Force would deal with the history of misconduct properly and implement measures to insure it would not occur again.
The Pentagon’s own numbers report 19,000 sexual assaults per year with only 13 percent of them reported. Less than 200 per year end in prosecutions or convictions.
For an NBC Nightly news report on the issue, click here.
On Nov. 16, 2011, California Rep. Jackie Speier (12th District) introduced H.R. 3435, the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act – or STOP Act which would take the reporting, oversight, investigation and victim care of sexual assaults out of the hands of the military’s normal chain of command and place jurisdiction in the newly created, autonomous Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office comprised of civilian and military experts.
McKeon’s office did not issue an official comment on the meeting at Lackland.