WASHINGTON — As military sexual assault victims gathered on Capitol Hill on Thursday to demand an open congressional hearing into the sexual abuse at the Air Force’s basic training school, one of the instructors involved was sentenced to 30 days’ confinement and reduction in rank — a punishment advocates say underscores their assertion the military doesn’t take these crimes seriously.
“This is a travesty of justice. It breaks my heart,” said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders. “What will it take for the military leadership to understand that their so-called system of justice is broken?”
Parrish’s group organized the Thursday meeting on Capitol Hill. Five veterans who survived sexual assault while serving spoke about their experiences and then delivered a petition signed by 10,000 people to the office of Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, asking for a hearing.
Paula Coughlin-Puopolo, who brought the 1991 Tailhook sexual assault scandal to light when she went public with her story, started the petition and flew in from Florida to speak at the event. Coughlin-Puopolo was one of 87 women assaulted during the Navy aviation convention in Las Vegas.
Standing outside a closed-door HASC meeting attended by Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, Coughlin-Puopolo said that while any hearing on the Lackland scandal was a good thing, committee members “need to hear the voices outside.”
After the closed-door meeting, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said she believes an open hearing is key to getting answers about what really happened at Lackland. She said she is “deeply troubled” by the fact that training instructors who sought inappropriate relationships with trainees were not fired.
McKeon released a statement Thursday afternoon, saying the briefing was a “good step” in the direction of transparency on Lackland, but the committee “expects to be fully informed at this issue evolves.”
The statement also said the committee was aware of concerns about the briefing not being open.
“We want to be very clear: We are committed to making sure that these sexual offenders are prosecuted and victim’s rights are protected,” the statement said. “In sensitive cases such as these, open hearings can jeopardize ongoing prosecutions and investigation. This is another step in our long-standing oversight of this issue. It is by no means the final step.”
Still, Air Force veteran Jessica Hinves said she wants to see the issue investigated in public.
“If there’s nothing to hide, nothing should be hidden,” she said.
Hinves said she was raped while serving in the Air Force, and that her attacker was awarded “Airman of the Quarter” while the rape investigation was still going on. She wanted to continue to serve, she said, but was honorably discharged due to post-traumatic stress from the attack.
The Lackland case shows attackers don’t always stop at one victim or one incident, she said.
Tech. Sgt. Christopher Smith, the instructor sentenced Thursday, was convicted of trying to start a relationship with one trainee and fraternizing with another. Air Force prosecutor Capt. Kaylynn Shoop had asked the jury to give Smith a harsher punishment, the San Antonio Express-News reported.
“To not give him a bad-conduct discharge is really saying that this behavior doesn’t shock us,” she said.
At least 38 female trainees were assaulted and 15 instructors have been implicated in the scandal. Courts-martial for three more instructors have already been scheduled.