Activists Demand Open Hearing on Air Force Sexual Assaults

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Ken Wright(WASHINGTON) -- Survivors of sexual assault in the military delivered a petition with more than 10,000 signatures to Congress Thursday demanding an open hearing on the sexual abuse scandal at Lackland Air Force base just minutes before the House Armed Services Committee began a closed-door briefing on Lackland.

More than 30 female trainees say they were raped or sexually assaulted by their instructors at Lackland, the Air Force recruiting center in San Antonio, Texas. Twelve different instructors are under investigation for their conduct, including Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, who was convicted of rape and sexual assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison on July 20.

Thursday morning, the House Armed Services Committee held a closed door briefing with Air Force Secretary Michael Donley about the ongoing investigations into the sexual assaults at Lackland Air Force Base. Right before it started, the sexual assault survivors, including the whistleblower who exposed the Navy's Tailhook scandal in 1991, delivered their petition demanding an open hearing to the office of Committee Chairman Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R.-Calif.

One of the victims, Air Force veteran Jennifer Norris, said she had been scared to speak up because she was afraid she would "lose her career." "And eventually I did," said Norris. "I was labeled a troublemaker. In a sense I was fired for being raped."

Tailhook whistleblower Paula Coughlin-Puopolo started the online petition demanding an open hearing last month. Coughlin-Puopolo was a Navy lieutenant in 1991 when she says she was forced to run a gauntlet and assaulted at the Tailhook conference, a meeting of a naval aviators group at the Las Vegas Hilton. According to a Defense Department report, three women and seven men alleged they had been harassed or assaulted during the conference.

Coughlin-Puopolo said Thursday she had joined other assault victims with hopes of discovering the "scope of the problem."

"With these signatures and the support of all of the military it's a possibility that we can actually discover the scope of the problem, turn the lights on to a culture the military does not want to see the problem; and that's why this petition is very specific to asking for an open door hearing," said Coughlin-Puopolo.

In addition to the 10,000-plus signatures, 78 members of Congress have also called on Rep. McKeon to open a Lackland hearing. That Thursday's proceedings were closed came as a surprise to at least one member of the House. "It's a closed briefing?" asked Rep. Allen West, R.-Fla., who was trying to bring two guests. "I did not know that."

According to a press release from Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for survivors of sexual assault in the military, last year there were an estimated 19,000 military rapes and sexual assaults, but only 3,200 victims reported the attacks and out of those only 191 cases resulted in court martial conviction.

In a statement by the Armed Services Committee, Rep. McKeon and Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D.-Wash., stated they understood the concerns the closed briefing had generated, but are "committed to making sure that sexual offenders are prosecuted and victim's rights are protected."

"In sensitive cases such as these, open hearings can jeopardize ongoing prosecutions and investigations. This is another step in our long-standing oversight of this issue. It is by no means the final step," the statement read.

Meanwhile, on the Senate side of the Hill, Sen. John Cornyn, R.-Texas, has removed the "hold" he had on the nomination of Gen. Mark Welsh to be Chief of Staff of the Air Force after meeting with him Thursday.

Cornyn had previously blocked Gen. Welsh, saying his hold would "remain until I feel the Air Force is adequately addressing the unacceptable situation at Lackland and taking corrective steps to reform their training program to prevent this from happening again."

Following Thursday's meeting, Sen. Cornyn said, "It's clear Gen. Welsh shares my grave concerns over the situation at Lackland. Gen. Welsh demonstrated a genuine resolve to improve Air Force-wide policies to prevent a recurrence of the grossly unacceptable conduct that took place at Lackland."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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