WASHINGTON -- Paula Coughlin and Jennifer Norris finished each other's sentences, laughed loudly and put a hand on the other's shoulder. Coughlin is a retired Navy lieutenant and helicopter pilot; Norris a retired Air Force technical sergeant. But what brought them together and to the Capitol is that both are survivors of military sexual assault -- and Norris was preparing to testify to Congress Wednesday on the armed forces' ongoing sexual assault problem.
More than two decades ago, Coughlin had come forward to blow the whistle on the military sex scandal known as Tailhook, for the Las Vegas military convention where widespread assault and harassment, including her own, took place. She told The Huffington Post that she had received personal guarantees from the president, the secretary of defense and her chain of command that such an incident would never happen again.
Yet on Wednesday, Norris testified before the House Armed Services Committee on one of the largest sex scandals in the history of the military, which emerged at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, in just the last few years.
"I thought Tailhook was a huge mushroom cloud of change. It's really the tip of the iceberg, and I don’t know what the timeline is going to be," Coughlin told HuffPost. "How many more Lacklands and Aberdeens and huge, disgusting, really detrimental scandals does the military need to survive until they get the guidance from leadership to solve this?"
Fifty-nine victims -- three of them men -- have come forward in the continuing Air Force investigation, which has been expanded to look at the past decade at the Lackland base, where members of the Air Force go through basic training. Thirty-two drill sergeants and training instructors have been disciplined on charges ranging from rape to unprofessional relationships, according to Gen. Edward Rice, the Air Force commander for Air Education and Training Command, one of the first witnesses at the House hearing Wednesday. Rice noted in his testimony that the latter number represents less than 4 percent of those who have served since 2009, the year many of the incidents date back to. Eight have been convicted, nine await courts martial proceedings and 15 others remain under further investigation.
"We've always said from the start we would follow every lead and would take it to as far as it would end," Brent Boller, a spokesman for Joint Base San Antonio, Lackland, told HuffPost.
Rice testified that when the Lackland scandal first broke, many in the military thought it was "a few bad apples."
"They had to both recognize that this is, in fact, a real problem and they had to recognize that they have a significant part to play in addressing the problem," he said. "I'm not in any way ready to declare victory."
Norris' eyes watered when asked by HuffPost before the hearing about speaking for the victims at Lackland and the estimated hundreds of thousands of others through the years.
Read Norris' story here.
"One of the big reasons I have the strength to speak tomorrow is because I know that they can't," said Norris on Tuesday, adding that she was grateful that the victims at Lackland have thus far been able to remain anonymous.
In August, Coughlin and several other military sexual assault survivors and advocates delivered a petition to Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) demanding an open hearing on the Lackland scandal. In less than a month, roughly 10,000 signatures had been gathered on the petition, which was backed by Protect Our Defenders, on whose advocacy board Coughlin and Norris both serve. More than 70 members of Congress also signed a petition echoing this request.
Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), co-chairman of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus with Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), confirmed that the committee had waited to hold a hearing until after the completion of the Air Force's own Lackland investigation, which resulted in 46 recommendations after some 18,000 interviews with service members. Though Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward, the chief of Air Force safety, found evidence of weakness in safeguards, leadership and accountability at Lackland, leading to an "ever-present" abuse of power, none of the victims were interviewed for the report due to the ongoing litigation, according to the Air Force. Rice told the committee that 23 of these recommendations have already been implemented, and the rest will be by November of this year.
"A hearing is important because it brings into the open the problems of the system," Turner, a member of the Armed Services Committee, told HuffPost. "It is a tragic and delicate topic to try and address in an open forum. But if DOD is not held accountable, sometimes you can't even discover the problems that need to be addressed because they remain hidden."
According to the Department of Defense, more than 75 percent of military sexual assault incidents go unreported. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III testified that underreporting is "one of the most challenging issues we have."
"I look at the 59 victims; less than a handful came to us," Welsh said, adding that this is evidence of failure on the part of the Air Force.
In the first portion of the hearing Wednesday, several members of Congress pressed Rice and Welsh on what has been described as an epidemic of military sexual assault, rooted in the culture of the armed forces.
Norris, forensic consultant David Lisak and retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Cindy McNally testified on the second panel to largely empty committee seating. The military leaders who had testified earlier; members of the committee, including the chairman; and many members of the military in attendance left before the later testimony.
"It's gonna happen, but it's gonna happen slowly," McNally said. "It's imperative for Congress to stay on the military and they have to be told, 'We f***ing mean it.'"
As many as one in three servicewomen report having been sexually assaulted, according to the Defense Department. In fiscal year 2010, the latest year for which data are available, the Pentagon estimated that some 19,000 assaults occurred. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been vocal about the military's policy of "zero tolerance," calling the assaults "an outrage" and ordering a sweeping review of all military training across the services in September 2012 and an ethics review in November.
Some 19 provisions addressing military sexual assault and women's expanded roles in the military were signed into law in January as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
"I don't think this is an incident only at Lackland, only in the Air Force, only in the military -- it's a societal problem," McKeon, the Armed Forces Committee chairman, said at the hearing, addressing the testifying military leaders. "We cannot fix the societal problem ... However you acknowledged that what was being done at that time was not enough to reverse the trend."
McKeon spokesman Claude Chafin noted that the issue is very personal to the chairman, a military grandfather.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a House Armed Services Committee member who visited Lackland in October, noted to HuffPost that many trainees are under 20 years old -- her own daughter's age. Speier said she will introduce legislation on the issue Wednesday and directed criticism beyond the military to her colleagues.
"I've lost my patience with four-star generals coming to committee hearings and expressing their dismay with the situation and shouting out their commitment to zero tolerance," she said. "This is barbaric, and it's going on under our collective noses."
After the hearing, Tsongas, another committee member, said, "I believe the Air Force is beginning to understand the complex nature of the military sexual assault issue -- that it is not just one little piece of the culture, but rather a systemic problem that must be addressed from the top down."
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'Full Battle Rattle'
Rebekah Havrilla, out on patrol in Afghanistan. The former Army sergeant and Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist enlisted in 2004, seeking out job training, education, "some patriotic element" after 9/11 and a way out of South Carolina. "I went in with the idea of making a career out of it," she says. "I thought, I can't be Special Forces, I can't do Rangers because I don't have a penis -- closest thing I can get to actually doing that type of job is EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal]."
Havrilla crouches in the remnants of a "demolition shot" she and her team did of a "bunch of captured enemy munitions" outside of Forward Operating Base Gardez, in Afghanistan. "It's a very male dominated, hypermasculine environment, so you've got to be the tomboy, kind of, 'let's play cowboys and indians. And soldiers,'" she says. But to some, this also meant persistent sexual harassment and even assault.
Havrilla says intense nightmares kept her from sleep, night after night, after she got back from Afghanistan -- until recently, when she moved to New York. Though Havrilla says that at first she suffered from the kind of hyper-vigilance described by fellow combat veterans in urban settings, she loves the city -- namely because it is so different than where she grew up, in a conservative Christian family in rural South Carolina. She is getting her Masters and working for the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN).
An early photo of Tia Christopher, who joined the Navy at age 18 in 2000 and was out just under a year later, honorably discharged with a "personality disorder."
Tia Christopher and her friend Aston Tedford at a women veterans retreat in Arizona several years ago. Christopher now works as an advocate for veterans, in particular victims of MSA, and has written guidance on the subject.
Tia Christopher in a favorite photo.
'I'm Beautiful Despite The Flames'
Tia Christopher sent this photo of her recently completed tattoo Friday, Sept. 28. Written in Arabic, she says "her motto" -- which covers scars from her assault -- more literally translates: "Despite the flames that devoured my flesh, I am still beautiful."
Claire Russo in a childhood photo.
Claire & Coconut
Claire Russo pictured at 10 years old, in 1989 with "Coconut." Russo grew up near Washington, D.C., and worked on the Hill. "I was sort of -- well no, a really privileged middle-class kid," she says. "I was just fascinated with the debate, and the decisions the government was making … And I remember a very strong desire to serve."
Claire Russo Salutes Her Cousin
Claire Russo in 2004 at Quantico, right after being commissioned, saluting her cousin Tom Winkle, a Navy lieutenant and pilot. Russo lived with Winkle in San Diego, and was with him the night of her assault, at the Marine Corps Ball. It was Winkle that reported Russo's assault; she did not want to report, being afraid for her career.
Claire Russo (right) with her roommate at The Basic School in Quantico, Va., after finishing a field exercise. Russo says that one of the 30 females in the class of 180 was raped in the barracks while she was at The Basic School.
Claire Russo in a courtyard in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006, when she served as the targeting officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. She deployed two weeks after testifying at the discharge hearing of the serviceman who raped her, Douglas Alan Dowson -- he was already in prison.
'Citizen Of Courage'
Claire Russo (front) salutes the flag during the national anthem, before she was given the "Citizen of Courage" award from the San Diego District Attorney's office in 2006. Behind her is San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and First Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF) Commanding General John Sattler, who Russo says is the "only commander to ever apologize to me for what I experienced."
Russo And San Diego DAs
Deputy District Attorney Gretchen Means, Claire Russo and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, after Russo received the "Citizens of Courage" award from the San Diego District Attorney's office at Camp Pendleton in 2006.
Down The Aisle
Claire Russo at her wedding to Josh Russo. Lt. Josh Russo was stationed at Camp Pendleton, some 40 miles north, at the time of Russo's assault in 2004. He remains in the military.
Claire And Josh Russo
Claire and Josh Russo on their wedding day, with friends from the Marines.
Russo And Her Motorcycle
"Me on my Russian Minsk 120 cc dirt bike, in Laos. This was one day on an 8 month trip/honeymoon Josh and I took. We rode motorcylces through SE Asia, Australia and went to Africa," Russo describes in a recent email.
Claire Russo in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, on a mission with the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Army Paratroopers. "I spoke with the district governor that day about how we could help to get a woman working for the Ministry of Womens Affairs working in his district," Russo writes.
Claire, Josh And Genevieve Russo In Paris
Claire Russo and her husband, Josh Russo, and their baby Genevieve, here four weeks old, in Paris. Josh serves in the U.S. Army.
"My 4 week old daughter Genevieve and I in front of a painting of Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, who saved the city from the Huns," Russo writes.
Marti Ribeiro In Front Of Village
Marti Ribeiro served with the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines over eight years as a combat correspondent.
As a combat correspondent, Marti Ribeiro accompanied medical convoys to remote areas without local doctors. Such clinics were set up in specific locations, so the locals needed significant advance warning of their arrival. When one such convoy came under attack, Ribeiro returned fire, earning her a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/14/women-at-war-unseen_n_1498291.html#slide=964342">Combat Action Badge</a>, though as a female, she officially should not have been in a position to take fire.
'Afghan Girls On Rooftop'
A photograph of Afghan girls, taken by Marti Ribeiro during her deployment.
Ribeiro In 2006
Marti Ribeiro and an Afghan boy in 2006.
'Soaked To The Bone And Miserable'
Marti Ribeiro titles this photo -- taken in Afghanistan in 2006 -- as "soaked to the bone and miserable."
Marti Ribeiro And Her Daughter Bela
Marti Ribeiro and her daughter, Bela, in San Antonio, Texas.