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Investigate Air Force for Openly Violent, Sexist and Hostile Environment to Women

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Active duty Air Force Technical Sergeant Jennifer Smith is a patriot. She has honorably served our nation in Iraq, Kuwait, Korea and Germany with stellar performance reviews. But for 17 years, under different commanders and on different bases, she endured an environment of denigrating hate speech, violent and misogynistic behavior and sexual assault. Like so many others she did everything in her power to protect herself and her career -- from ignoring the behavior to seeking help from her chain of command. But, none was forthcoming.

Jennifer recently went public with allegations of ongoing sexual abuse, harassment and hostility toward women fostered by United States Air Force leadership and traditions. Today, Protect Our Defenders is calling on Congress to immediately investigate the allegations and releasing the administrative complaint [PDF] filed on behalf of TSgt Smith and other active duty women against the Air Force alleging systemic and intentional sexual discrimination.

The administrative complaint filed by attorney Susan L. Burke contains extensive exhibits [PDF] detailing a wide range of sexual harassment, "including, but not limited to, verbal slurs and inferences, nonverbal gestures, pictures and notes, unwanted physical contact, unwanted touching, and physical advances."

According to the complaint, Jennifer recently told a commanding officer of an assault she endured in Iraq and asked that violent pornographic Air Force songs, videos and photos be removed from government computers at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, where she and others see the material when they log onto a computer. At the time of the administrative filing, the offensive and degrading materials were still on government servers.

The materials are indisputably hostile to women and make clear that these Air Force officers view these materials as part of a "tradition" and mock those who object to this "tradition." For example, the song entitled "The S&M Man" [*Beware Graphic Content] containing violent, hate filled language

At the end of the song, the Air Force officers openly mock those who would complain about the hostile environment, stating "Note: If offended refer to blanket apology letter, and if your not a fighter pilot, then beat it..."

This misogynistic culture is promoted and extended to new fighter pilots joining squadrons through the songs, handbooks and fake "bio" forms they are given to fill out -- thereby indoctrinating new squadron members.

Some of the most disturbing content included in the complaint has been stored in collections of Songbooks from the 55th, 77th, and 79th Fighter Squadrons {PDF], which have been used to record traditions and songs. They contain obscene, violent and misogynistic language and pornographic images, including the "Fighter Pilot Songs - Combat Songbook; F..k Songs and Trash Tunes."

The military command structure has done little to remedy the problem and in fact has frequently directly participated in or fostered a culture of hostility and violence toward women. The culture is so endemic that even good officers wanting to do the right thing cannot or will not help.

In their own description in the handbook, officers argue that because they take risk and do things that are hard and dangerous, that it is okay for them to denigrate and even abuse others -- who are in their view less worthy. Their primary targets are women -- their fellow service members. That proposition on the face of it is sick and inexcusable and it's apparent that the command structure in the Air Force and DOD has thus far done nothing to disabuse them of this warped notion that they hold so strongly.

Another document, a so-called "Hook Up Manual," that is countenanced by the command structure, has explicit instructions on how perpetrators' "Wingmen" have the responsibility to divert the victim's friend (battle buddy), so that the perpetrator through the use of alcohol, drugs or whatever can abuse the victim. It describes the role of a "Wingman" as someone who is "willing to throw himself upon the cruel mercies of a brazen man-hater, just so his buddy can hook up...."

Exhibit N: The Wingman's Handbook

Reading TSgt. Smith's complaint one is struck that a number of officers in the chain of command throughout TSgt. Smith career have either acted inappropriately or could not or would not step forward to stop the brazen, denigrating behavior toward her and others nor remove this violent hate speech contained in the exhibits from government servers.

Faced with harassment, degrading comments and a culture disparaging to women, which ultimately led to Tsgt Smith being sexually assaulted, she did what 86% of victims within the military do -- she remained silent.

The Air Force is aware of this hostile environment, but has taken no effective steps to stop the behavior. The administrative complaint states, "Smith and other female Air Force personnel should not be forced to endure such a hostile environment as a price to be paid for volunteering to defend this nation." We agree.

Today, Protect Our Defenders is calling on the Chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Los Angeles County) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) to immediately investigate the allegations against the Air Force.

We are proud of Jennifer's bravery for coming forward and exposing the sexual harassment and hate speech against women that is not only allowed, but encouraged throughout the Air Force. Unfortunately, Jennifer is not alone. Her story is shared by thousands of fellow female Air Force personnel. Where vile hate speech is allowed to fester, rapes and assaults are not far behind. How many more men and women like Jennifer need to be harassed or assaulted before our elected leaders realize the military will not on it own fix this "silent epidemic"?

According to the military's own reports, there are 19,000 victims a year of mostly unpunished rape and sexual assault throughout the military. Yet only 13.5 percent come forward, primarily out of fear of retaliation. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that veterans who had experienced military sexual trauma had a total of 696,250 Military Sexual Trauma (MST) related encounters with the VA in 2010 and that 20 percent of all women and 1 percent of all men have told the VA they experienced sexual trauma in the military.

More than twenty years ago former Naval Aviator Paula Coughlin-Puopolo reported her assault to senior officers, who did nothing. So she went public in what became known as the "Tailhook scandal." Earlier, this year Paula went public again demanding Rep. McKeon hold a congressional hearing about the criminal sexual abuse scandal at Lackland Air Force Base, to seek legislative remedy and so that the American public understand the scope of the horrific epidemic of rape in our military. At least 40 female trainees at Lackland say they were raped, sexually assaulted or victims of other sexual offenses by their instructors.

After weeks of pressure from Paula and other survivors organized by Protect Our Defenders, Rep. McKeon announced that he intends to hold "open and complete" hearings into the sexual abuse scandal at Lackland. Meanwhile, Air Force officials have claimed what happened at Lackland was an "isolated" incident.

Protect Our Defenders is calling on Congress once again to do its job of oversight and begin an investigation into the systemic, misogynistic culture within our military.

Over the past year Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has announced several reforms to address what he calls a "silent epidemic" of military sexual assaults, like bumping the reporting of rape and sexual assault further up the chain of command. But, it does little to address the problem. Many survivors, like Jennifer have made it clear that senior commanders are just as capable of encouraging or ignoring misogynistic behavior or covering up assaults and they frequently do. Commanders are incentivized to sweep problems under the rug, as their careers can be adversely affected if a rape or sexual assault is reported on their watch. And the DOD reports [PDF], "39% of women report that the perpetrator was a military person of higher rank and 23% indicated the offender was someone in their chain of command."

Despite everything Sec. Panetta has said or done, it is very clear that deep down in the bureaucracy it has not made a real difference -- the system is broken and must undergo fundamental reform.

Until the military, holds commanders accountable, until colonels and generals are seeing their careers ended because they did not take effective action within their command nothing is going to change. For 25 years the military has acknowledged the problem and announced numerous so-called reforms. But the bottom line is to date the interest of commanders to protect their careers out weighs the will to under take fundamental reform and change the culture.

The prevalence of rape of both men and women in our military, the failure to prosecute perpetrators and the retaliation against victims continues to undermine readiness, unit cohesion and morale.