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Newsmonger: Congress will hold Lackland hearings

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The House Armed Services Committee announced last week it will hold hearings on the sex abuse scandal that has continued to widen at Joint Base San Antoinio-Lackland over the past year, following the committee chairman's much-criticized visit to the base just three days prior. HASC Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon angered advocates when, after his surprise three-hour Lackland visit on September 9, he characterized Lackland's growing scandal as "a few people who go beyond the bounds of propriety and misuse the authority they've been given." McKeon insisted he had confidence the Air Force was effectively cleaning up at Lackland, where to date 17 military training instructors have been charged or investigated for crimes ranging from aggravated sexual assault to improper sexual relationships with trainees. The official victim-count from the Air Force shrunk last week from 43 female trainees to 39.

For months members of congress and victims of military sexual assault had called for McKeon and the HASC to hold open congressional hearings to root out just what had led to the assaults at Lackland and, more broadly, sexual assault in the whole armed forces. By Wednesday last week McKeon and the HASC had changed tone.

Claude Chafin, HASC spokesman, told the Current in an email last week the full committee will hold a public hearing after prosecutions at Lackland have cleared. He wouldn't clarify on a timetable, or whether there's a plan for what specific items should be addressed during the hearing.

The Defense Department's own data suggests that Lackland is far from an isolated incident, rather the latest flare-up of what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called a "silent epidemic." Based on the Pentagon's most recent survey, 19,000 victims are sexually assaulted within the military each year – it's estimated only 14 percent of victims report the assault.

Nancy Parrish with the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders insists the military justice system has failed to keep the problem in check, describing a command climate that blames victims and fails to take reports of rape and sexual assault seriously.

Parrish points to data showing that of the 3,122 reports of rape and sexual assault within the military in fiscal year 2011, only 240 went to trial. Of the 191 service members convicted, 122 were dishonorably discharged or dismissed from the military, meaning the rest faced lesser punishments like fines and demotion.

"What we see is a military justice system so very weighted against the victim," Parrish said.

Parrish and other advocates also worry the trial of Staff Sgt. Kwinton Estacio last week sets an alarming precedent for other Lackland prosecutions down the road. Military Judge Lt. Col. Matthew Van Dalen acquitted Esctacio of the most serious charge against him, aggravated sexual assault, after the victim in the case, a young female Air Force recruit, failed to articulate a specific threat against her at trial.

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