WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The sexual assault of 59 military recruits by drill instructors at a Texas air base was a "stunning" case that cannot be allowed to happen again, the top U.S. Air Force general told lawmakers on Wednesday as he testified before Congress about steps to address the problem.
But victims groups at a hearing on the attacks at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio said the incident was just the latest example of a sexual assault problem that has bedeviled the military for decades. They said the military had failed to fully address the problem for far too long.
The Armed Services Committee in the Republican-led House of Representatives agreed to hold the hearing on the unfolding scandal at Lackland after being urged to do so by nearly 80 lawmakers.
"How could this have happened? How could the system and in particular the leadership have failed to protect the men and women who serve our nation from sexual predators?" asked Representative Buck McKeon, the panel's chairman.
"The events at Lackland are the most recent example of sexual assaults that have plagued our military for far too long," he said.
The military has been grappling with the issue since the 1991 Tailhook scandal, when dozens of Marine Corps and Navy aviators were accused of sexually assaulting 83 women and 7 men at a convention in Las Vegas.
The latest Pentagon report on sexual assault in the military, released in April 2012, said 3,192 cases were reported in the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2011. That was a 1 percent increase in reporting from the previous fiscal year.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has tried to make curbing sexual assault a priority, has said there could be as many as 19,000 cases a year, a number he called "unacceptable."
The Lackland sexual assaults came to light in June 2011 when a female recruit reported that a drill sergeant had sexually assaulted a fellow trainee. The resulting investigation found that the instructor had attacked 10 victims between October 2010 and June 2011.
During the course of the investigation, three other drill instructors approached their squadron superintendent and said they knew of other instructors who were engaging in inappropriate conduct with their trainees, prompting another investigation.
General Edward Rice, who is responsible for recruiting and training Air Force personnel, said so far eight drill sergeants have received disciplinary action for sexual misconduct, nine have been charged and are facing courts martial and 15 are still under investigation.
Rice said 59 "victims or alleged victims" had been identified and offered support services, which all but two had accepted.
The Air Force chief of staff, General Mark Welsh, said the scope of the Lackland scandal was shocking.
"This collection of events at basic military training has been stunning to most of us in the Air Force," he said. "There's simply no excuse for it, there's no justifiable explanation and there is no way we can allow this to happen again."
He and Rice said the Air Force had implemented half of the 46 recommendations made by Major General Margaret Woodward, who investigated the Lackland situation at the commander's request.
Another 22 recommendations will be completed by November this year and the final one - for a shorter basic training period - is being considered separately.
Victims' advocates who attended the hearing said the military's response to Lackland was inadequate and was unlikely to stop the problem of sexual assaults in the military or even to ensure impartial investigation and prosecution of the crime.
"The military is not able to solve this problem," said attorney Susan Burke, who has represented victims of military sexual assault. "They have had decades. The definition of insanity is to do the same thing again and again and expect a different result."
Burke and other victims' advocates have called for lawmakers to change the way the military justice system handles rape and sexual assault charges.
"We need to have legislation passed by Congress in this session and we need that legislation to take justice, ... the judicatory power, out of the conflicted and biased hands of the chain of command and put it in impartial hands," she said.
Lawmakers also heard directly from victims of sexual assault, including retired Air Force Technical Sergeant Jennifer Norris, who told how she was raped once and assaulted three times in her first two years in the service.
She said she had a difficult time listening to the testimony by Welsh and Rice. While they may genuinely care about changing the system, they still rely on military justice that depends on commanders to "do the right thing," she said.
"In my eyes, that means, OK, commander, you're the judge, jury and executioner," she said. While the civilian legal system has different courts and routes of appeal, "in the military we have one person that may or may not help you," she said.
Editing by Christopher Wilson