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A House Armed Services subcommittee will begin hearings this month into a basic training scandal at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in which dozens of military training instructors have been accused of sexual misconduct, welcome news for victim advocates and a group of 78 lawmakers who have demanded a congressional review of the widening Air Force investigation.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a vocal proponent of the hearings and critic of the military's handing of sexual assault, said her office has learned from the Military Personnel Subcommittee the hearing is set for Jan. 23.
Six MTIs have been convicted since spring 2012 of charges ranging from rape to improper contact over social media. One of them, ex-Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, is serving a 20-year prison sentence for his crimes. Walker was the first to be charged in the sweeping scandal, in which half a dozen other instructors have been charged and at least 15 more remain under investigation.
The service has conducted its own reviews into basic military training, including an independent investigation led by Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward. A number of changes within BMT are underway as a result of the review, including raising requirements for instructor duty, ramping up MTI oversight and adding more women and instructors to the corps.
The military has also elevated the level at which sex assault cases are handled, and the Air Force announced this month it will offer alleged sexual assault victims their own attorney, a specially trained judge advocate general who will help accusers navigate the lengthy and sometimes confusing military criminal justice system.
But that has not been enough for some advocates and lawmakers, who have called on a separate, investigative agency to handle sex assault reports, rather than the chain-of-command.
"With this hearing, Congress will be able to assert our oversight responsibility and demand accountability from all of the military leaders who permitted a culture of abuse at Lackland Air Force Base. The nearly 60 young female trainees who have been identified as victims of the widespread sex abuse scandal by training instructors deserve justice and answers that cannot be provided solely with a military-run investigation," Speier said in a statement.
The congresswoman called the planned hearing "an important step towards justice for the young women who signed up to serve our nation in the Air Force only to become victims of abuse and for the 19,000 servicewomen and men who are raped or sexually assaulted every year in our military."
In a statement, Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military sex assault victims, called the crime an "epidemic … in our military" and cautioned against short-term reform.
"This is not just a crisis in the training commands — it's throughout the armed forces and has been for decades, as the latest Air Force sexual abuse [allegations] that broke last week make clear," president Nancy Parrish said in the statement, referring to an Air Force recruiter who faced an evidentiary hearing Jan. 8 on charges he assaulted or had inappropriate relationships with 18 Air Force applicants and a recruiting assistant.
Sexual assault "must be addressed systemically and this requires congressional hearings and legislation," Parrish said, "so that Lackland does not become another Tailhook or Aberdeen."