Ms. SPEIER. Mr. Speaker, I have now come to the floor some 21 times to tell the story of survivors of military sexual assault and the institution and culture that failed them. Some would tell you that the military has learned from their egregious mistakes and that they are largely now addressing this problem. The situation I'm describing to you today is happening right now and flies in the face of what we are being told by our military and the Members of Congress who believe that they have this problem under control.
Recently, a San Antonio newspaper began reporting on a scandal at Lackland Air Force Base that is growing by the day. So far, at least four Air Force instructors have been charged with sexual misconduct with at least 24 trainees. Like many cases of rape and sexual assault, the perpetrators are not denying that they engaged in sexual misconduct; they simply contend that the sex was consensual. It comes down to the words of the accused and the accuser--the instructor against the trainee. In the military, this usually means the perpetrator gets off or receives a disproportionately small punishment and the victim endures an arduous and humiliating legal process with little sense of justice at the end.
Two of the women that have come forward were called over an intercom 2 days after they graduated from basic training last fall and asked to leave their dorm and to meet their instructors. In a dimly lit supply room, the women said they had sexual relations with their instructor. ``I was frozen,'' one of the women said, explaining that her mind was racing. ``I tried to think.'' Both women said failure to follow orders could cause them to be retained in basic training under the very instructors that assaulted them.
While unnerved about the order to leave their dorms, they told themselves it had to be legitimate. From the day they entered the military, they had been trained--and required--to follow the orders of their instructors, even those that didn't make sense. This may be hard for some in the civilian world to relate to, but it is the constant reality within our Armed Forces. It is ingrained in our military servicemen and -women to follow the orders of their chain of command and never, ever disobey. The justice system is also beholden to this chain of command, but I will get to that a little bit later.
Staff Sergeant Luis Walker, a military instructor, is charged with sexually assaulting 10 women, including sodomy and rape. Staff Sergeant Kwinton Estacio is charged with sexual misconduct with one woman, violating a no-contact order, and obstruction of justice. Staff Sergeant Craig LeBlanc is charged with sexual misconduct of two women trainees. Staff Sergeant Peter Vega-Maldonado has been charged and convicted of sexual misconduct with one woman.
Staff Sergeant Vega admitted in a plea bargain to having sex with one woman. His punishment? Ninety days in jail, 30 days of hard labor, reduction in rank, and forfeiture of $500 a month in pay for 4 months. After striking the deal with prosecutors, Vega admitted that he actually had improper contact with 10 trainees.
Now, mind you, we are not firing these people. They continue to serve in the military. Vega is not immune to further prosecution, but his admission of guilt cannot be used against him in future procedures. Each victim will have to come forward and the prosecution will have to start from scratch. Vega will be forced to leave the Air Force, but without a bad conduct discharge. Imagine that, without a bad conduct discharge.
If the military is as vigilant as they say they are, how could such a repetitive, widespread, and sickening behavior still be occurring? What is being uncovered at Lackland flies in the face of what we are being told by our military. Is this what zero tolerance means in the military?
Former Air Force Secretary Whitten was quoted in the newspaper saying:
The age-old problem is that you're putting very smart, attractive people, marrying age, together in close quarters. It's a circumstance that is difficult and really requires restraint. Sometimes restraint is very difficult.
Secretary Whitten doesn't get it. The age-old problem in the military is attitudes like this. The age-old problem in the military is a broken justice system that delivers weak sentences, if any. The age-old problem in the military is that nine out of 10 women Staff Sergeant Vega has now admitted to committing sexual misconduct with have not come forward because they know that the odds of getting justice are slight and the odds of their careers being finished are great.
What is happening at Lackland Air Force Base should and needs to be a wake-up call. This problem is happening now, and it is systemic.
Victims are still not coming forward because of what keeps happening--backwards attitudes of blaming the victim, and disproportionately weak sentences. Writing off survivors as women who had consensual sex and now have regrets is insulting and I'm afraid how many in our military see this problem.
The Department of Defense has so far been unable to appropriately address this problem--and Lackland is proof of that.
We--Congress--need to act to circumvent the chain of command and give discretion to an impartial office to determine and facilitate the appropriate path for perpetrators and victims. We need to fix the system that survivors who report are now facing, right the injustices suffered by those that have already gone through this system and provide the care, resources and understanding for these survivors to get better.