By TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Sen. Tammy Baldwin has asked Air Force investigators to look into allegations of sexual assault and harassment within a Wisconsin Air National Guard unit that were brushed aside by senior officers, according to a member of the unit.
The Wisconsin Democrat sent a letter in mid-November to the Air Force office that handles congressional inquiries, asking it to investigate the claims involving members of the 115th Fighter Wing’s Security Forces Squadron, a group of about 100 airmen that polices the Truax Field Air National Guard Base in Madison.
Baldwin made the request after receiving a letter from Jay Ellis, a master sergeant in the security squadron. Ellis wrote that he had learned of six incidents of sexual harassment or sexual assault against female members of the squadron, incidents that happened between 2002 and 2016, and that high-ranking officers had done little in response.
“There’s a culture in our unit … (that) sexual misconduct, depending on who does it, it’s no big deal,” Ellis told The Associated Press during a recent interview.
Sexual assaults have plagued the U.S. military for years. In fiscal year 2017 alone ,the four branches received 5,864 reports from military members who said they had been sexually assaulted sometime during their service, a number up 10 percent from 2016, according to Department of Defense data.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations, or AFOSI, told Baldwin that her request had been referred to personnel responsible for the Madison area. Baldwin wrote back asking the office to confirm that an investigation had begun.
“If there is a culture of sexual harassment at Truax field it is imperative that steps be fully taken to expose improper action and take remedial action to ensure a safe and appropriate work environment,” Baldwin wrote.
AFOSI officials didn’t respond to an email from the AP asking whether an investigation was underway. Ellis told the AP that investigators from Scott Air Force Base in Illinois spoke to him on Nov. 16 and asked him for details of the incidents and the names of those involved.
Maj. Penny Ripperger, a spokeswoman for the 115th Fighter Wing, said on Thursday that, as far as she knew, AFOSI investigators had not reached out to anyone on the division’s leadership team regarding Ellis’ allegations.
She said such behavior isn’t tolerated and that allegations are taken seriously. Airmen receive frequent training on preventing sexual assault and harassment, she said.
“Our organization actively encourages a culture of reporting and seeks to foster an environment where victims feel comfortable coming forward,” Ripperger said.
Ellis said there’s no documentation of the incidents he brought to Baldwin’s attention because the women involved hadn’t filed formal complaints.
One of the women described her ordeal during a recent interview with the AP. The woman, who spoke on the condition of being granted anonymity, said she and a friend were sexually assaulted by superior officers in the security unit during a party held in 2002 at Silver Flag Alpha Range, a training base outside Las Vegas, as the unit was preparing to deploy to Iraq. She said she hadn’t filed a formal complaint because she had feared retaliation, but that she did report the assault to her fire team commander, Pat Konz.
Konz, who was then a technical sergeant but who has since retired from the Air National Guard, told the AP that he documented the woman’s claims in his personal notes, which the woman supplied the AP. Konz said he passed on the allegations to a senior master sergeant in the security unit. The only result he knows of, he said, was that woman was harassed during the deployment.
Ellis also alleges that, in 2008 at the Madison base, a technical sergeant made inappropriate remarks to female airmen, and that he tried to kiss one and choked two others.