Ret. USAF Staff Sgt. Colleen Bushnell was raped at the now infamous Lackland Air Force Base by a superior officer in 2003 and assaulted the following year while on active duty. Her story is heartbreaking, but unfortunately it is far too common.
News has been breaking almost daily this summer with horrific new details about a criminal sexual abuse scandal at Lackland and the ongoing crisis of victim-blaming, retaliation and sweeping the crime under the rug while failing to prosecute the rapist.
Since Colleen was a trainee at Lackland the epidemic of unpunished military sexual assault has gotten progressively worse and the Air Force has admitted before Congress that they don't know how to fix it. The VA estimates that there are now more than half a million soldiers that have been a victim of sexual assault while in the armed forces.
On July 1, 2012, news broke that 31 trainees said they were sexually assaulted while serving at Lackland. Protect Our Defenders announced that this was just the tip of the iceberg. Three weeks later, the number of victims climbed to 38 and the number of instructors being investigated internally rose to 15. Based on emails and calls we receive daily from survivors, we know that this problem is long-standing and that 38 victims is sadly a fraction of the number of trainees sexually assaulted at Lackland.
Colleen, an Iraq war veteran, decided that she is going to do something about the ongoing criminal behavior at Lackland, so what happened to her does not happen to any other of our brave men and women who decide to serve our country. The mother of two is biking across country this summer with other veterans, part of the Long Road Home Project. She has been sharing her story with Americans in small towns and big cities across our country -- asking them to join her in calling on Congress to do their job and get to the bottom of the criminal sexual abuse scandal at Lackland. Colleen is asking congress to open an investigation and then legislate fundamental reforms.
More than 14,000 citizens have joined her and signed a petition demanding that Rep. Buck McKeon, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, hold a congressional investigation on the Lackland criminal scandal to protect our defenders.
Yet so far Congress has only held one inadequate closed-door briefing where Air Force brass was unable to answer basic questions about their internal investigation and the scope of the problem.
We hope Congress acts before Colleen arrives in our nation's capital in October, but if it does not, Colleen will deliver thousands more petitions to Congress from folks that have joined her on the road to D.C. demanding our elected officials do their job and not let the Air Force hide behind closed doors.
The military's previous internal efforts to care for victims, investigate and prosecute military sexual assaults have largely failed. Lackland is only the latest high-profile case of military sexual assaults. There was Tailhook in 1991, Aberdeen in 1997 and now Lackland in 2012. The military has not addressed the core problems. We must not allow them to sweep yet another scandal under the rug.
Over the past year Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has announced several half measures to address the crisis of military sexual trauma, like bumping the reporting of rape and sexual assault further up the chain of command. But, this does little to address the problem. Many survivors have made it abundantly clear that senior commanders are just as capable of covering up assaults and frequently do. Commanders are incentivized to sweep problems under the rug as their careers can be adversely affected if a rape or sexual assault happens under their watch. And the DOD reports, "39 percent of women report that the perpetrator was a military person of higher rank and 23 percent indicated the offender was someone in their chain of command."
Two Lackland instructors have received sentences so far -- one for 20 years, potentially shorter for good behavior. A second instructor was sentenced to 30 days of military lock up, after which he will be permitted to remain in the military -- a travesty of justice that has infuriated survivors.
Air Force Major General Edward Rice has questioned whether Lackland is indicative of widespread assaults throughout the military, but then backed off, claiming rape in the military is a "localized" problem. The newspaper that broke the scandal just published our op-ed about why Rice's contradictions indicate that we need an external investigation.
For decades servicemen and women have suffered from widespread sexual assaults and continue to at bases and on ships all over the world. A congressional hearing could investigate for signs of widespread sexual violence within our ranks. Our elected officials must now act to get to the bottom of the military's rape crisis.
This open secret of rape in the military damages morale and unit cohesion, costs the military many valuable service members, hinders recruiting and undermines public support for the worlds best defense force, that otherwise should be the pride of our grateful nation.
Fixing the problem will strengthen the military and make our country more secure. The members of the service deserve to know that their leaders will do the utmost to protect them and enable them to grow and serve with honor and distinction.