ALBANY, N.Y. — A former New York Air National Guard officer's allegations of abuse within a high-profile unit are more evidence of a "systemic crisis" in the nation's armed forces, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said Friday.
The claims of a pattern of sexual abuse at the 109th Airlift Wing in Scotia, N.Y., come at the same time the unit is being investigated for officer misconduct, according to a spokesman for the state's Division of Military and Naval Affairs.
Retired Lt. Col. Sharon Dwyer Stepp, from Bennington, Vt., said in a letter to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy that she was the victim of a sexual assault three times during her 37-year career in the military, and grew increasingly frustrated when abusers were transferred and sometimes promoted. She supports a proposal by Gillibrand to take sexual abuse claims out of the chain of command and give them to military prosecutors.
"The commanders all work together to ensure a sexual assault case does not come forward," Stepp wrote to Leahy in a letter delivered Wednesday. Stepp, who was the unit's sexual assault prevention and response coordinator from 2006 to 2010, provided the letter to The Associated Press on Thursday.
Gillibrand's measure was knocked out of a Senate Armed Services Committee bill this week. The bill that passed is designed to increase pressure on senior commanders to prosecute sexual assault cases by requiring a top-level review if they fail to do so. The proposal also makes it a crime to retaliate against victims who report a sexual assault and calls on the Pentagon to relieve commanders who fail to create a climate receptive for victims.
"The commanders need to be removed from the chain of command so when there is a sexual assault, the victim truly has a voice and can get justice," Stepp wrote.
Gillibrand said her measure would have covered all segments of the military, including guard units.
"This is yet another disturbing report in a string of unacceptable reports stretching from the various military branches to the service academies and now to the National Guard," she said in a statement released Friday. "Lt. Col. Stepp's remarks are consistent with what we have heard over and over again from the victims, the chain of command is failing victims of sexual abuse."
As many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2011, a recent Pentagon report said.
"The chain of command has had decades to solve this problem and failed," Gillibrand said. "We have heard the words "zero tolerance" for over two decades. Enough is enough. This is a systemic crisis in our military."
David Carle, a spokesman for Leahy, acknowledged receipt of the letter.
"(Leahy's) staff will talk to her soon to explore the claims in greater detail and decide how best to help," Carle said.
Col. Richard Goldenberg, spokesman for the state's DMNA, said he had no knowledge of Stepp's allegations and couldn't comment on them.
"Our New York Air National Guard takes sexual harassment and sexual assault very seriously at all levels of command," Goldenberg said Thursday.
Goldenberg said there was an allegation last October of sexual misconduct at the 109th, but the Air Force Office of Special Investigation determined that the case didn't rise to the level of sexual assault and didn't conduct an investigation.
Division officials said the current investigation of the 109th was requested by Maj. Gen. Patrick Murphy, the head of New York's Army and Air National Guard forces, and is being led by Brig. Gen. Deborah Carter of the New Hampshire Air National Guard.
The 109th is the only unit in the U.S. military flying what are called Skibirds, ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules cargo planes capable of landing on snow and ice. The crews and their planes support research efforts on Antarctica.
In 1999, the unit gained international acclaim after Dr. Jerri Nielsen diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer while working at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. With the next plane not due for months, a crew from the 109th landed in 58-below-zero weather that October and brought her out of Antarctica.