WASHINGTON — Expressing dismay with a growing problem of sexual assault in the military, Rep. Tom Cole told the top two officials in the U.S. Air Force on Thursday that somebody might have to get “kicked out.”
“If there have to be some examples made, they just need to get made because it's just not tolerable to be in this situation,” Cole, R-Moore, said at a House subcommittee hearing on the Air Force budget.
Cole, whose district includes Tinker Air Force Base, also suggested that critical aircraft repair be protected if the service moves ahead with civilian furloughs. Cole said he appreciated that Defense Department officials wanted to treat employees equally, but that not all civilian work was of equal importance.
Cole was among several lawmakers who spoke at the hearing about the problem of sexual assault, an issue that has grown in intensity on Capitol Hill in recent weeks.
This week, the Pentagon released a survey that showed an estimated 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012 — up 35 percent from 2010. There were 3,374 reports of sexual assault involving service members as victims or subjects, an increase from the 3,192 reports received in 2011, according to the Pentagon; the offenses ranged from abusive sexual contact to rape.
Last weekend, the Air Force officer who heads an office to prevent sexual assault was charged with sexual battery after an incident outside a bar near the Pentagon.
Before that, many lawmakers were incensed that the sexual assault conviction of a pilot was overturned by a general.
Cole said the problem isn't limited to the Air Force and that the behavior has to stop. He called it a “big, big deal for the country” and the military because it runs counter to the values of most people serving.
“I think you've almost got too much judicial process here for the perpetrators and not nearly enough for the victims,” Cole said.
Air Force Gen. Mark A. Welsh, the chief of staff for the service, said he agrees.
“There's no magic that's going to solve this problem,” he said. “It's going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of new ideas, a lot of partnership with the Congress, with outside agencies and experts who deal in this area. … But we understand the problem.”
Tinker Air Force Base is home to a huge aircraft repair depot that primarily employs civilians. Rather than imposing furloughs across the board for civilians, Cole said, “some discrimination might be appropriate” to ensure aircraft are properly repaired.
“I don't want airplanes that don't fly, let alone airplanes that come down with crews in them,” Cole said.
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said the decision on furloughs has yet to be made, but that Cole's points have been part of the discussions. Because of the budget cuts that took effect in March, Donley said, a repair backlog of 60 aircraft and 35 engines is expected at Air Force depots.
The Air Force was doing its best to “minimize the impacts and to maximize the readiness we can get from our depot workforce with the funds available,” he said.