06/05/13 — SJAFB commander among witnesses

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SJAFB commander among witnesses

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 5, 2013 1:46 PM

Editor's note: The testimony quoted in the following article was broadcast live on the Internet Tuesday and recorded by the News-Argus.

Col. Jeannie Leavitt did not argue with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee when they quoted surveys and studies that suggest that sexual assault is pervasive in the military -- that victims are, more times than not, reluctant to come forward for fear of retaliation.

She agreed that a "climate change" is necessary -- that "command needs to understand, at all levels, that they will be held accountable if they do not identify sexual assaults when they happen."

But the 4th Fighter Wing commander dismissed the notion that the authority to handle such incidents should be taken from officers like her.

"I believe that the commander needs to have the ability to back up what they say -- to be able to enforce the standards they set," she said. "If I say there is no acceptable level of sexual assault, I need to be able to back that up -- not look to an independent counsel and then ask them to take it to court-martial."

Col. Leavitt was among dozens of high-ranking officers who testified on Capitol Hill Tuesday during a hearing convened to address what some lawmakers characterize as one of the most critical problems facing the military.

And during her testimony, she unwrapped several Air Force initiatives she believes are making a real difference.

She told members of the committee that Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's Sexual Assault Response Coordinator is "very visible" within the installation.

"She is out and about and visible," Col. Leavitt said. "And on every marquee ... one of the things that cycles through is, 'If you need to talk to the SARC, here's her number.'"

And she detailed how, when new airmen arrive in Goldsboro, she personally ensures "it's crystal clear in their minds what the standard is -- what is acceptable and what is not."

The colonel also talked about the Air Force's Special Victims' Council Program -- a pilot project that provides legal counsel directly to victims of sexual assault.

"It really gives the victim a voice," she said. "And it also empowers them."

But despite those things, the truth is, Col. Leavitt said, that no problem can be solved overnight -- not even via an act of Congress.

"It's going to take some time. You know, we're trying to get the word out. We're trying to change that climate to make sure people understand -- victims understand -- that they can come forward and we will hold people accountable," she said. "But I think it's going to be a continuous process. We've done a number of things, but we have to continue it."