By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Three female Democratic members of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday called for broad changes to end what they say is an epidemic of sexual assault in the military that goes beyond the sex-with-recruits scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
The comments by U.S. Representatives Loretta Sanchez, Susan Davis and Jackie Speier came after the California Democrats visited the San Antonio base and spoke with victims of the scandal.
Dozens of female trainees have complained that they were victims of improper sexual contact by military training instructors at Lackland, where some 35,000 Air Force recruits are trained each year.
The lawmakers are calling for stricter abuse reporting requirements, embedding sexual abuse counselors into the ranks of trainees and teaching instructors that it is their duty to prevent abuse. Speier said she will consider introducing a measure to make it a crime for a military supervisor to know about sexual abuse and not to report it.
"We must have enough in place institutionally for people to be able to see problems and dangers, and be able to act on them," Davis said.
At Lackland, the lawmakers spoke with four of the training instructors who reported the abuse and by phone with two of the roughly 40 victims who have claimed to have been victims of sexual abuse at the hands of their male training instructors.
"There was a predator among them," Davis said. "He was allowed to operate with impunity for a long, long time."
Five training sergeants have either been convicted or pled guilty to charges stemming from the improper sexual conduct, and three commanding officers have either been relieved of duty or transferred since the scandal began to be exposed in the summer of 2011. Another training instructor is awaiting court martial, and another dozen have been notified that they are under investigation and have been removed from command of training squadrons at the sprawling base.
Last month, the Air Force said it had selected a woman, Colonel Deborah Liddick, to serve as the new commander of basic training.
Speier said she has "some reason to believe" that the sex scandal is much more far-reaching than the Air Force has conceded, and she asked commanders to scour their records dating back 10 years to uncover other cases of abuse.
"Military training instructors who have blown the whistle felt that it had been going on for some time and it had been accepted," she said. "There should be an action for endangering the trainees under your leadership when you don't take action to report."
Davis said any training instructor who is found guilty of sexually inappropriate behavior should be "removed from the Air Force, period." Two of the five Lackland trainers who have faced court martial have received jail sentences, but were allowed to remain in the military.
The full Armed Services Committee says it will hold hearings on the issue of sexual assault of trainees in all branches of the military. Republicans have a majority of House of Representatives seats and any new law introduced by the Democratic lawmakers would have to get some Republican votes to pass.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan, Greg McCune and Lisa Shumaker)