TAMPA — After leading an Air Force investigation into a widespread series of sexual assaults at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas earlier this year, Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward had an epiphany of sorts.
During her time as commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill Air Force Base, Woodward oversaw two reports of sexual assaults of airmen.
One was a woman who reported being assaulted on the base. The other was a man who reported being sexually assaulted off the base. In each case, the accusers eventually recanted.
In an interview with The Tampa Tribune, Woodward said that what she learned from her Lackland investigation made her rethink how she approached the two MacDill cases.
When the victims retracted their statements, "I, at the time, believed, OK, it didn't happen," Woodward said. "I found out this summer, roiling through the investigation, that it is completely normal and typical for sexual assault victims to retract their statements.
"If I had known that," she said, "I think I would probably have tried much harder. I am not sure I would have backed off as I did if I had known that it is a typical response. In retrospect, probably both of those happened."
The Lackland investigation, released earlier this month, found nearly 50 victims had been assaulted by trainers. Several trainers received courts-martial, two commanders were relieved of duty and several others were disciplined.
Woodward offered nearly four dozen recommendations, including making sure Air Force leaders understand how to better approach sexual assault allegations like those at MacDill.
"We will train all leadership to understand those really special dynamics of sexual assault so we can understand the victims better," Woodward said. "That will help us."
Fewer than 10 sexual assault reports were recorded by the base sexual assault response coordinator over the past 12 months, according to Sgt. Brandon Shapiro, a spokesman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing. That figure, he said, includes all military branches stationed at MacDill, as well as civilians.
"The Air Force takes a proactive stance with all airmen in creating an environment of trust in which victims feel comfortable reporting sexual assaults," he said.
Shapiro said that in addition to the full-time sexual assault response coordinator, the staff regularly conducts training for airmen about sexual assault prevention and response, and each airman must go through a Bystander Intervention Training program.
"Bottom line, sexual assault is a crime, it violates our core values and it's the goal of the Air Force to eliminate it," Shapiro said.
In the last fiscal year, the military received 3,192 reports of sexual assault involving service members, a 1 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Pentagon.
Commanders had sufficient evidence to take disciplinary action against 989 subjects. For the 791 subjects who could be disciplined for a sexual assault offense, 62 percent had court-martial charges initiated against them, a 10 percent increase from the previous year.
Woodward, who commanded MacDill from 2005 to 2007, had been named the Air Force Chief of Safety after a stint directing air operations during the uprising that led to the liberation of Libya. The assignment wasn't something she volunteered for.
Aside from being pulled away from projects she was already working on, "the thought of looking at airmen who are conducting misconduct is not something any of us look forward to."
Woodward was given the assignment, called a Commander-Directed Investigation, in June. It stemmed from allegations that began a year earlier, when a female trainee assigned to the 37th Wing's Training Squadron reported that her military training instructor had sexually assaulted a fellow trainee, according to the report.
Ultimately, three trainers were convicted of sexual assault or unprofessional relationships with trainees or students. Four other trainers are awaiting court-martial.
Nearly 40 airmen worked an average of 80- to 100-hour weeks on the investigation, Woodward said. She said she conducted about 40 interviews herself.
One of those interviews was with former Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado, one of the perpetrators.
"I honestly thought it was going to be tough before I went in," Woodward said. "I sat across the table from him and found out he was just an immature young man. To be honest with you, I started, in essence, to feel sorry for him in one way, even though I feel more sorry for his victims."
Vega-Maldonado was given a reduced sentence for cooperating with investigations, according to the report. Adding to the complexity of the investigation, Woodward said, he is engaged to one of his victims.
Though Woodward didn't interview any of the Lackland victims as part of her investigation, she did talk to some past sexual assault victims.
"It was the first time I had talked to anyone I knew of that had dealt with sexual assault," she said. "It is a pretty horrific thing for anyone to go through. The real hard thing for me was to see how much it impacts their entire lives."
A master sergeant, said Woodward, "told me she had been raped in her first duty squadron 20 years ago. She had not told anyone, kind of buried it."
It wasn't until talking to a doctor two decades later that she began to realize the toll the assault had taken on her.
"If only she had done this 20 years ago, she would have had a very different life," Woodward said. "That is such a shame, 20 years of life so negatively impacted by one heinous event."
Woodward said she came away from the investigation proud of the Air Force.
When the Air Force found out about the allegations, "they didn't bury it or gloss over anything," Woodward said. "It was important to the Air Force leadership to get rid of any sexual assault and take care of the airmen."