By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The House Armed Services Committee will hold a public hearing on Wednesday into sexual assault in the military, prompted by outrage over a sex-with-recruits scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
The Washington hearing comes after nearly 60 current and former personnel, including two men, came forward with what the Air Force considered credible reports that they were sexually abused by their drill sergeants at the base in San Antonio.
Six drill sergeants have been convicted and six more Lackland Military Training Instructors are awaiting court martial in the case. The probe also recently expanded to a recruiting sergeant who was charged with sexually assaulting women who were discussing joining the Air Force.
More than 70 members of Congress signed a petition calling for an open hearing into the case and a similar public petition drew more than 10,000 signatures.
Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh and General Edward Rice, commander of the Air Education and Training Command are both expected to testify on Wednesday.
They are likely to address the completed Air Force internal investigation of Lackland, the Air Force's center for basic training, and the alleged incidents dating back to 2009. The Air Force has extended its inquiry back 10 years.
The House committee chairman, California Republican Howard "Buck" McKeon, told Reuters military commanders were expected to provide an environment of security and respect and "without question" had violated that trust.
"I expect them to tell this committee and the American people what went wrong and what they are doing to rebuild the good faith that the Lackland scandal has erased," he said.
Committee member Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, said the Air Force did not appear willing to get to the root of the problem.
"I intend to ask whether General (Margaret) Woodward, who conducted a formal review of the culture at Lackland without speaking to a single victim, amended her report and recommendations to include interviews with any of the young women who were raped, sexually assaulted, or sexually harassed by thirty military training instructors," Speier said.
Nancy Parrish, who leads an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military called Protect Our Defenders, said there was an epidemic of sexual assault in the military and a culture that punishes the victim. She said it was time for President Barack Obama to act.
"We look to the Commander in Chief to make this a top priority in 2013," Parrish said, adding that she hoped the hearings would be a first step.
Paula Coughlin, a former Navy helicopter pilot who exposed the "Tailhook Scandal," in which female pilots were sexually assaulted and harassed during a Las Vegas convention in 1991, believes authority to investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases should be given to an independent civilian panel.
"It has to come out of the chain of command, because the chain of command has really become impotent," Coughlin said. "The chain of command is vested in protecting itself, and so often, the perpetrator of the assault is in the chain of command."
Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Addicott, a long time Judge Advocate General for the Army Special Forces, argued that the Air Force investigation headed by General Woodward had led to realistic solutions.
The Air Force has increased the number of female Military Training Instructors in basic training, and now requires two squadrons of recruits be trained by four instructors, at least one of whom is a woman.
He said that in many cases the demands of Congress for quick and full integration of women into all military branches had led to the current problem.
"The problem lies not just with the military, but with the people who want to engage in social engineering to create this utopian idea of what men and women should or shouldn't do," he said.
Parrish said a 2010 Pentagon report estimated that there were 19,000 military rapes and sexual assaults each year, but only 3,200 victims reported attacks and only 191 cases resulted in court martial convictions.
"It is yet to be determined whether these hearings will be another footnote in this tragic American story, or whether Congress will take on its responsibility of oversight to fix this problem," Parrish said.
(Editing by David Bailey and David Brunnstrom)