On sexual abuse and impunity in US Air Force

Victim in a sexual assault scandal in the US Air Force fears little has changed since she blew the whistle in 1991.

I recently spent time with some female trainees at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas – both the place where all Airmen go for basic training and the site of a burgeoning sexual assault scandal.

At the time, I was struck by their insistence that the Air Force would support them, if anyone dared to violate their bodies.

I am rethinking their optimism, thanks to an interview with the woman who first sounded the alarm about military sexual abuse.

Paula Coughlin-Puopolo says she felt the same way as those young women when she first became a Navy helicopter pilot.

As the daughter and granddaughter of aviators, Coughlin-Puopolo says she had no reason to feel any other way.

But then came the “Tailhook” Convention in 1991 in Las Vegas.

The annual gathering of Navy and Marine Corps aviators is part professional development, part socialising.

But Coughlin-Puopolo says that year, the socialising degenerated into violent groping and fondling as she tried to make her way down “The Gauntlet” – a hallway at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Coughlin-Puopolo reported the assault, but says everyone from her boss – a rear admiral – to military investigators mocked her claims.

Her skirt was too short. She had no business being in a hotel with hundreds of drunken aviators. She was jeopardising her career by filing the charge and going public.

In the end, the Navy Secretary had to resign, and the careers of fourteen admirals and 300 naval aviators were damaged. No one went to prison. That was 21 years ago.

Coughlin-Puopolo worries that today’s young airmen are too optimistic, even naïve.

So she is trying to help them, lobbying the government to fight the problem through better training and accountability.

She says she hopes the new Air Force chief of staff, General Mark Welsh, will use every bit of power he has to erase sexual abuse from the military – even though he has already told anyone who will listen, he’s not sure he will be able to do it.

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