On Monday, Air Force Sergeant Luis Walker will face a court-martial in Texas—the first case in the military’s biggest sexual assault scandal in 16 years, and one that is shining a harsh spotlight on the military’s supposed "zero-tolerance" policy toward sex offenders.
In the year since Walker was first accused of rape, an internal investigation has discovered 31 more victims, at least five other instructors have been charged with rape or inappropriate relations with female trainees, and 35 more have been removed from their positions pending investigations. Walker has been charged with multiple counts of rape and aggravated sexual assault.
On June 28, California Congresswoman Jackie Speier addressed the Lackland case on the floor of the House of Representatives. “Nothing has changed,” she said, calling for a hearing into the alleged abuse. “We need to know once and for all why instructors have been permitted to abuse power so freely and we need to know from the top that the phrase ‘zero tolerance for sexual assault in the military’ is a fact, not a talking point."
The military first pledged to crack down on sexual assault and harassment within its ranks in 1992, in the wake of a massive scandal that erupted at the Navy fliers’ annual Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas, where some 90 victims were allegedly assaulted by as many as 175 drunken officers. A year and a half later, a Pentagon report found that Tailhook was not an isolated incident, but the culmination of a “long-term failure of leadership.” The Navy’s chief of operations, Admiral Frank Kelso, pledged that the event would transform the institution. Tailhook “brought to light the fact that we had an institutional problem in how we treated women,” he said. “In that regard, it was a watershed event that has brought about institutional change.”
But just four years later, another scandal erupted—this time, at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where assault charges were brought against a dozen male officers for sexual assault on female trainees. Then, in 2003, the U.S. Air Force Academy was also accused of systemically ignoring an ongoing sexual assault problem on its premises.
In a phone interview with The Daily Beast, Speier called the similarities between the Lackland case and Aberdeen “chilling,” and expressed her frustration with repeated but seemingly empty calls for “zero-tolerance.” She estimated that half a million people have been sexually assaulted while serving in the U.S. military. “You have sexual predators that are on the prowl,” she said. “I’m sick of the excuses.”
A 2012 Pentagon report found that, last year, 3,192 incidents of sexual assault were reported within the U.S. military—up 1 percent from 2010. According to the Defense Department's own estimate, just 15 percent of actual incidents are reported, putting the real number at some 19,000 assaults each year. Under current policy, reports of sexual assault are handled directly within the military’s chain of command. There’s little incentive to investigate accusations, and as a result, cases are rarely prosecuted. According to the report, nearly 70 percent of substantiated, “actionable” cases did not go to trial because of lower-level command discretion.
These dismal statistics would surely not surprise Paula Coughlin. In late June 1992, as a 29-year-old Navy lieutenant, she appeared on ABC News to tell the nation about her horrific ordeal at Tailhook. She said that, along with dozens of others, she had been groped and manhandled in a “gauntlet”—and that, when she’d told her superiors about the incident, they’d done little more than shrug. (One reportedly told her, “That’s what happens when you walk down the hall with a bunch of drunk aviators.”)
But Coughlin was persistent, and took her complaints higher and higher up the chain of command, before ultimately going public with the ABC interview and an article in The Washington Post. Two days later, she was summoned to a meeting with then-president George H.W. Bush. She thought it was a sign that she was finally being heard.
“When you get the call that the Secretary of Defense is going to take you over to see the president? I’m thinking ‘oh my God. These are the big guys. This is serious. We’re really finally going to solve this problem.’” she told The Daily Beast. But her greeting from then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney wasn’t exactly warm. He looked at her, she says, and told her, “You know, I just had to fire the secretary of the Navy because of you.” “I’m like, oh, this is not the healthy environment I thought it would be.”
Twenty years later, Cheney’s purported dismissiveness seems all the more ominous.
That was hardly the worst of it, though. “It was a horrible experience,” she says of coming forward with her accusations. “I’m part of this Naval aviation community, or I was. But what I endured day-to-day from fellow aviators, from commanding officers…[they] looked at me like such a huge liability. The Navy really wanted me to go away quietly. It became an endurance test to see how many days I could get up and go to work.”
That experience is not an uncommon one. As survivors of military sexual harassment and their advocates say, when it comes to rape within the ranks, the attacks themselves are just the tip of the iceberg. More damaging still is the way the assault cases are handled. “Congress has done a number of hearings and in each of them, the victims and their heartbreaking stories of their experiences with the military are equally as disturbing as their stories of sexual assaults,” says Congressman Mike Turner of Ohio. “Many times, they say they were re-victimized.”
Congressman Turner and Representative Niki Tsongas, who formed a Congressional caucus on military sexual assault this year, wrote a letter last week requesting that the Air Force brief their caucus on its response to the Lackland scandal. “[Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta has said that the military has a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy,” Tsongas said. “Well, we’ve heard those words before.”
The military’s emphasis on hierarchy and authority means that many officers are more inclined to protect the institution than the victim, says Elizabeth Hillman, president of the National Institute for Military Justice. “Look at Penn State,” she says. “What happened there is just what happened in the Catholic Church and the U.S. military.”
Coughlin, who now goes by her married name Puopolo, is speaking out for the first time in years, joining Speier and an advocacy organization called Protect Our Defenders in calling for an immediate congressional hearing. “Twenty years ago, this issue came to light,” Coughlin says. “I’d been living in a little bubble—thinking that the 7 to 10 years I’d fought to make some changes in the military had affected some change. I don’t think I changed anything. It’s extremely disappointing.”