By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - A congressional panel will hold a hearing as soon as this month on sexual abuse in the military, an aide to a key lawmaker said on Tuesday, as the sex-with-recruits scandal in the Air Force continued to expand.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, a California Republican, "has committed to having hearings on this issue, and the committee is working on putting that hearing together," said Claude Chafin, a spokesman for McKeon.
Chafin did not say when a hearing would take place, but Jenny Werwa, a spokeswoman for committee member Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who has pushed for such hearings, said it is likely to begin January 23 before the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.
Thirty of the Military Training Instructors who conduct basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio have been removed from duty in an investigation into sergeants engaging in sexual activity with female recruits. Six have been convicted by courts martial of charges ranging from engaging in inappropriate relationships to rape, and have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from 30 days to 20 years.
Military judges have declined to order several of them removed from the Air Force, leading several members of Congress to demand hearings.
"The Committee has an obligation to begin an arm's-length investigation of the situation that is independent of the military's own effort to police itself," Speier said.
An internal Air Force investigation recommended that more female training sergeants be added, but rejected the idea of switching to same-sex basic training, with female sergeants managing female trainees. It said the Air Force should train as it works, with men and women side by side.
Advocates for people sexually abused in the military praised the committee and said a public hearing will go a long way toward dealing with an issue they say goes beyond a few dozen instructors at the Air Force's basic training base.
"This is not just a crisis in the training commands, it is throughout the armed forces and has been for decades," said Nancy Parrish, president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders. "The epidemic of sexual assault in our military must be addressed systematically and this requires congressional hearings and legislation."
Jeffrey Addicott, a retired Army Judge Advocate and longtime legal adviser to the Army Special Forces, said that civilian authorities should not get involved in military issues and that a congressional hearing will simply muddy the waters.
"Part of the problem with military structure and discipline resides directly with the Congress and other social justice ideologues who have engaged in social engineering programs in our military," Addicott said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan, Greg McCune and Andrew Hay)