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SECAF nominee: Commanders should be held accountable for sexual assault

Deborah Lee James wants commanders evaluations to look at how they deal with sexual assault

Sep. 19, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
James Confirmation MWM 20130919
Deborah Lee James, nominee for secretary of the Air Force, pledged, if confirmed, to instill more confidence in sexual assault victims to report the crimes committed against them. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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The nominee for Secretary of the Air Force said Thursday that commanders should be evaluated on how well they have dealt with sexual assaults when they come up for promotion.

“Command is an honor and a privilege in this country, it’s not an entitlement, and those who do not live up to our values simply need to be removed from that command,” Deborah Lee James told lawmakers during her confirmation hearing.

Sexual assault was one of the major issues discussed at the hearing. Other issues include whether the Air Force will cut the A-10 fleet and how the Air Force will distribute missions, planes and people among the active-duty force and the Air National Guard and Reserve.

Currently, commanders are required to conduct climate assessments that include questions on sexual assaults, but those assessments are not included in commanders’ files or seen by promotion boards. But James, a member of Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, testified that she believes commanders should be held accountable for how they respond to sexual assaults.

In her prepared answers to questions from Congress, she wrote that commanders should be “graded” on the sexual assault reporting climate in their units as part of their performance reports.“So to the degree that each and every commander understands that his or her career is on the line to do well in this regard, people pay attention to what they’re measured on,” she said.

If confirmed, James pledged to instill more confidence in sexual assault victims to report the crimes committed against them. Through DACOWITS,she has spoken to a number of victims and people who know victims.

“They tell me they don’t come forward for a number of reasons: They feel personally ashamed; they feel they may be blamed for what has happened;they do feel retaliation, sometimes from chain of command, sometimes from their buddies in their unit, and they just simply don’t want people to know and they’re not sure that anything will be done or at least not enough will be done,” she said.

One way to build confidence may be to transfer either the victim or alleged perpetrator out of the unit, James said.

She also supports continuing to keep sexual assault cases within a victim’s chain of command, noting the chain of command has been able to overcome previous challenges, such as racial integration, by keeping a“persistent and constant” focus on the issue, she said.

“I think the reason why it hasn’t been as effective on this particular matter over the decades is because that consistency of focus has been lacking,” James said. “If I am fortunate enough to actually get this job and become secretary of the Air Force, that would be a top job that I would carry forward, is to keep that focus strong.”

James’ prepared answers to sexual assault made up more the five pages of her 36-page answer to lawmakers’ questions. On another subject, she was asked how the Defense Department’s proposed pay increase for 2014 would affect recruiting and retention. The department has called for a 1 percent pay raise, below the Employment Cost Index of 1.8 percent.

She wrote that compensation must remain competitive but in light of the current economic crisis, the Air Force needs to balance personnel costs to avoid cuts to force structure and modernization.

“In the short term, I am hopeful that a 1 percent pay raise will have a negligible impact upon overall recruiting and retention,” she wrote.

Facing steep cuts in spending for the foreseeable future, the Air Force is considering cutting entire fleets of aircraft to save money, but lawmakers were skeptical of any effort to retire the A-10.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said she has seen a Power Point slide from Air Combat Command that says the A-10 would be phased out by fiscal 2015.

“What makes me concerned is that there already has been a decision made on the A-10 and as you and I talked about in our meeting, the A-10 has a very important function in terms of close air support and in fact, most recently in July 60 soldiers were saved in Afghanistan because of the important close air support provided by the A-10,” Ayotte said.

James replied that to the best of her knowledge, no decision has been made on divesting the A-10 or any other fleets.

“All of this is pre-decisional; however, it is my belief that planners and people who are looking at budget and possible scenarios are looking at options and everything, including complete divestitures of aircraft fleets, these things are possibilities, they are on the table,” she said.

In February, the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force is expected to deliver its report on the service’s future force structure needs. It came about after Congress was outraged over proposed cuts to the Air National Guard in fiscal 2013.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said he is concerned about the Air Force’s own assessment of how missions could be redistributed among the active-duty force, Guard and Reserve. James said she would consider the commission’s findings and recommendations.

“I am a deep, deep believer in the value of the total force,” James replied. “In some ways, it’s painful for me to see the frictions that have been happening between the air components. Clearly there are some fences to be mended and we need to do some work here. I absolutely welcome the work of the commission. I’m fortunate that I consider myself to be a good friend of some of the commissioners.

“With that said, I’m equally sure that we will have to take reductions. We’ve talked about this budget situation that we’re facing, so it won’t be easy but we need everybody’s input and best efforts.”

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