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."