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A group of basic trainees perform formation and parade drills in preparation of their graduation on Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

A group of basic trainees perform formation and parade drills in preparation of their graduation on Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. (Cecilio Ricardo/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON - Twenty-one years after Paula Coughlin-Puopolo went public with the story of rampant sexual assault and harassment at the Navy's Tailhook convention in Las Vegas, she's once again stepping forward to demand change to a military culture she said is fundamentally flawed.

Coughlin-Puopolo last month started an online petition demanding the House Armed Services Committee hold a hearing to investigate the sexual abuse scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. More than 10,000 Americans have signed the petition, she said.

Coughlin-Puopolo and four other victims of military sexual assault will deliver that petition to HASC Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., on Thursday, just before a closed-door briefing on the Lackland scandal.

During the 1991 convention of Navy and Marine Corps aviators, Coughlin-Puopolo said she was fondled and groped by up to 200 men in what was dubbed "the gauntlet" - a hotel hallway where military officers ambushed and attacked women. When she reported the incident to her boss, an admiral, she said he told her, "That's what you get when you go down a hallway full of drunk aviators." After months without hearing a response to her complaints, and learning that dozens of other women had filed similar reports, she went to the press. She later sued the Tailhook Association and the hotel where the convention was held. In all, 87 women said they had been assaulted.

She's speaking out again after at least 38 women have reported being sexually assaulted by instructors at the Air Force's basic training school. One instructor, Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, has been convicted of raping one trainee and sexually assaulting several others, and 14 other instructors are being investigated or have been charged.

"I just couldn't watch any more without speaking out," Coughlin-Puopolo said. "I was absolutely distraught to think that in 20 years, the situation and the work environment for women in the military is less safe and less professional ... and has really become just so, so abusive."

Coughlin-Puopolo is a member of the Protect Our Defenders advocacy board and recently participated in a documentary about military sexual assault, "The Invisible War." She said learning more about the continuing problem made her worry that her own experience had not changed anything.

"I couldn't let it sit that what happened to me was for naught," she said.

Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, said that while the Air Force is doing its own investigation and prosecution in the Lackland case, Congress has a responsibility to veterans and the rest of the country to probe deeper.

"Time and again, we have seen a pattern over the past 25 years where we have a flare-up in the press and public consciousness, such as Lackland ... then the response is kept out of the public eye," Parrish said. "There's never a systematic policy solution."

The first step to change is an open dialogue, Coughlin-Puopolo said, which is why she wants to see a congressional hearing.

"What has developed is this horrific, target-rich environment for sexual predators," she said. "It's time for me to stand up again. ... I believe that there's enough momentum now that the leadership is really going to have to pay attention and make some real changes."

hladj@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @jhlad

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