Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III, second from left, picks up papers during a break in his testimony today on Capitol Hill in Washington.
WASHINGTON — A weak command structure and a climate of fear among female personnel created the conditions that led to widespread instances of sexual assault of Air Force recruits by their instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, senior Air Force commanders said today.
On the eve of a Pentagon announcement that it will lift the ban on women in combat, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that there was poor oversight of instructors at the Air Force's version of boot camp at Lackland, and acknowledged that "weaknesses developed in each one of our institutional safeguards" that led to a poisonous culture in which the instructors believed they could easily get away with repeatedly preying on young woman recruits.
The Lackland case, allegedly involving 32 instructors who took advantage of their power over as many as 59 recruits, is one of the largest sex scandals in the military since the Tailhook episode of the early 1990s, and has come at a time when the problems of sexual assault, harassment and abuse have become major issues for the military.
Last year, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta acknowledged that the number of sexual assaults in the military is probably far higher than official statistics have shown.
At least two of the instructors at Lackland allegedly had sexual encounters with 10 different recruits each. The instructors took advantage of teenage recruits, who were just entering the Air Force and who had already been told to obey any orders from their instructors. In some cases, the recruits were ordered by instructors to go to a closet, where they were then molested by the instructors.
Welsh said the biggest problem faced by the military in dealing with sexual assaults and abuse has been the reluctance of women to report attacks and instances of harassment, for fear of reprisals. Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr., commander of the Air Education and Training Command, told the committee that only "a handful" of the 59 victims had come forward to the Air Force to report the assaults.
''Why, on the worst day of their life, don't they come forward?" asked Welsh. "That's the heart of the problem. People don't feel comfortable coming forward, and they do not routinely report either sexual assault or sexual harassment, and that is one of the biggest problems we have."
Both Welsh and Rice acknowledged that one problem is that Air Force commanders have discretion in deciding whether to include incidents of sexual harassment on the service records of Air Force personnel. They said it was possible for people to be transferred from one base to another without any record of incidents of sexual harassment to be noted.
Today's hearing followed a petition drive that gathered 10,000 signatures demanding that Congress examine the Lackland incidents and an announcement last week by the Air Force that it had just completed an inspection of all of its bases that found widespread evidence that pornographic and other inappropriate materials were on display in work spaces throughout the service.
''The Invisible War," a documentary about rape and sexual assault in the military that was recently nominated for an Oscar in the documentary feature category, has been credited with both convincing more women to come forward to report abuse and with forcing the military to deal more openly with the problem.
In November, Welsh met with all of the Air Force's wing commanders and had them watch the film with him, according to an Air Force spokesman.