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Congresswomen push for tougher measures against sexual abuse in military

By Leslie Bentz, CNN
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Fri October 5, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The congresswomen met at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas
  • Lackland recently was at the center of a sexual assault scandal
  • Lackland trains an average of 35,000 Air Force recruits every year.
  • Rep. Sanchez: "Saying no isn't something women may feel they have the freedom to do"

(CNN) -- Three Democratic congresswomen, all members of the House Armed Services Committee, met at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for almost nine hours this week to discuss possible new legislation that would enforce tougher laws against sexual abusers in the military, and create more institutional support for victims of sexual assault.

Lackland recently was at the center of a sexual assault scandal in which dozens of women alleged they were the victims of such assaults. Several training sergeants were successfully prosecuted and others have been discharged or reassigned. Still more are waiting to hear their fate, as investigations are ongoing.

Reps. Susan Davis, Loretta Sanchez and Jackie Speier, all representing districts in California, met Tuesday with officials on the base, spoke with current trainees, and held a conference call with three out of an estimated 40 victims. The lawmakers are considering several possible actions, including establishing a hotline for victims to call and report abuse, as well as making sexual abuse counselors more readily available to trainees.

"These base trainers were choosing specific women and grooming them, then passing them along to each other," Sanchez told CNN Thursday. She stated that in some instances, instructors would build on personal relationships before making sexual advances, which is common behavior among sexual predators. She said in some cases women trainees were intentionally transferred into positions where they would be more vulnerable to such advances.

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"In some cases it was consensual, but these instructors control your life when you are a trainee, so saying no isn't something women may feel they have the freedom to do," Sanchez said.

Congress needs to examine the current laws and members should ask themselves "if the language is tight enough" to be able to prosecute abusers, Sanchez said, adding it is "not enough to slap someone on the wrist."

"This should never be happening, the culture needs to change."

Davis echoed the sentiment,saying she "wants want to create an environment where people can come forward without fear of retaliation."

Lackland trains an average of 35,000 Air Force recruits every year.

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Collen McGee, chief public affairs officer for the base, tells CNN that visits from members of Congress are not at all unusual.

"We are happy to open our doors to members of Congress. We welcome these visits," McGee said. Recently, a new commander, Col. Deborah Liddick, was put in charge of basic training, though McGee insisted that the base "promotes on merit, not gender," and that Liddick is the third woman in a decade to hold this position.

Rep. Speier said she hopes to encourage more honesty on possible assaults by "creating liability," and making it a crime for a supervisor to "know about abuse and not report it." The congresswoman said she has letters from a so-called whistleblower who alleged that sexual abuse goes back as far as 10 years, and would demonstrate the issue is more wide-reaching than what is currently being reported.

Speir said a "better balance of power" would help to curtail the current climate, in which those who come forward with allegations of abuse are "treated as pariahs."

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Speier said that while particular cases were vigorously pursued, others were not.

"I want to know how many other victims are out there and why this was tolerated for so long," she said.

But Davis conceded it can "be hard to turn in your friends," and that the cases of alleged abuse at Lackland were a "somewhat unique situation because of the training environment," which she says encouraged passivity in the chain of command.

In spite of the past climate, Davis said the meetings Tuesday were positive, adding that leaders at Lackland "realize the work is just starting. They take it to heart."

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