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Four investigative teams were meeting with wing commanders and airmen throughout the Pacific this week in a follow-up to the Pacific Air Forces survey to see how commands are dealing with sexual assault and how to improve both prevention and response.

Four three-person teams, each led by a colonel and including an Air Force lawyer and medical professional, are visiting wings in Alaska, Japan, Hawaii, South Korea and Guam. Each visit is to last about four days, officials said.

“We’re trying to get a better handle on the problem,” said Col. Steve Lepper, the Pacific Air Command staff judge advocate who headed the September study that analyzed 92 reported rapes in PACAF.

The teams not only will “look at how programs are working, but also go a step farther and get perceptions from airmen on the issue of sex assault,” he said. “We’ll talk to people who live in the dorms and have a more grass-roots perspective and also see how they feel leadership is stepping up to this issue.”

The study Lepper headed was initiated by Gen. William Begert, who commands the Pacific Air Forces, in the wake of the sexual assault scandal at the Air Force Academy. Begert wanted to know how prevalent sexual assault was in his command, whether offenders were appropriately punished and how victims were treated.

The study found that most of the assaults were non-injury “acquaintance rapes,” and that in many cases alcohol was a factor. The study also found flaws in how the cases were handled, prompting orders to ensure victim advocates were appointed, more complete evidence was gathered and cases were better documented, including a legal analysis of each. The study brought about a servicewide investigation, including instructions for each command to send out teams to gather information.

“So now we’ve really in effect come full circle,” Lepper said in a phone interview. “We are now taking action that was initiated based on the action we took.”

Victims would not be interviewed during the short visits, Lepper said. “We were advised by folks better acquainted with post-traumatic stress that the burdens and disadvantages of re-traumatizing victims might outweigh the benefits,” he said. “We knew pretty much where our weaknesses were.”

In February, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered a Department of Defense-wide review of how sex assault victims are treated. The order followed questions from Congress and news reports that after returning to the United States, at least 37 female soldiers in Iraq sought help from civilian organizations for sexual trauma. Those women reported poor medical services and inadequate investigations by commanders. Rumsfeld ordered the review be completed by May.

Next month at a PACAF commanders’ conference, Lepper said, the group will meet with Christine Hansen, executive director of the Miles Foundation, a Connecticut-based group to help victims of military sexual assault and domestic violence and a critic of how the military has dealt with such issues.

“We want to learn,” Lepper said. “We know we’re only starting to understand the dynamics of sexual assault and how to respond. We’re thirsty for whatever information we can get. We’re starting with commanders. We believe this is a leadership issue.”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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