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Air Force faced with new sexual harassment and abuse scandal

Unfortunately, the U.S. military has struggled with incidents of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace in Florida and across the country. This is because there is a persistent culture of silence that pervades the military, one in which victims of sexual harassment, sexual abuse and even rape are unwilling to report the abuse.

In fact, according to defense department statistics, it is estimated that 19,000 cases of sexual assault take place in the military each year. However, only a fraction of those cases are ever reported. Last year, only about 3,200 of the estimated 19,000 incidents of sexual assault in the armed services were reported or investigated, according to the Defense Department.

After a single report of sexual abuse was filed last year against a boot camp instructor at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, the Air Force's investigation has revealed what may be one of the most serious sex abuse scandals in recent history.

The allegations primarily took place at Lackland, where 36,000 recruits partake in basic training each year. Shockingly, approximately one-quarter of the male boot-camp instructors at Lackland's 331st Training Squadron have been accused of sexually harassing or abusing female Air Force recruits.

After that first complaint, the Air Force has uncovered at least 31 victims, all of whom are currently members of the service. About 22 percent of recruits to the Air Force are women, but only 11 percent of training instructors are female.

In boot-camp, recruits are at the mercy of the instructors who essentially have total authority over them -- although it is crucial to remember that their authority does not extend to illegal harassment or abuse. As part of the process, which is meant to mold service members into an effective unit that will respond to the orders of their superiors in combat, recruits are traditionally subjected to a regimen of constant correction with harsh penalties for even small mistakes.

Under that pressure, recruits are often afraid of making mistakes -- and most believe their military careers may depend on going along with virtually any order by a boot camp instructor without complaint. In such a situation, it is no surprise that some recruits would be afraid to ask for help if they have been the victim of sexual harassment or abuse.

While the boot camp regime is tough, it is not meant to be a reign of terror. It is unquestionably illegal for drill instructors to abuse their authority by sexually harassing or abusing recruits.

Are there systemic issues related to sexual harassment in this workplace? The Air Force has appointed a two-star general to investigate that very question. A member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California has called upon the House Armed Services Committee to hold hearings on the Lackland Air Force Base incidents.

Source: The Washington Post, "Air Force investigates growing sex-abuse scandal," Craig Whitlock, June 28, 2012

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