WASHINGTON -- When Air Force Secretary James Roche visited an American air base in South Korea last year, he and his wife, Diane, wondered aloud whether they could test the view, widely shared among Air Force leaders, that sexual assault was not a big problem in the Air Force.
So she did. Right there.
"She could talk to some of the women officers in ways I could not. My wife is a very quiet, gentle Chicago girl, and [afterward] she said, `You know, maybe you ought to look at this,' " Roche said yesterday. He was describing why the Air Force decided it needed to examine more closely sexual-assault issues throughout the service, at home and abroad.
Assertions about rape at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., have rocked the service and resulted in a purge of academy leaders. The generally accepted view in the Air Force has been that conditions for women in the service itself were "much better" than at the academy, Roche said.
Following his wife's advice, Roche instructed General William Begert, commander of Pacific Air Forces, to look into some recent rape cases and see what the data indicated about the extent of the problem there.
Begert found that commanders in his region took the issue seriously, but he also found that alcohol played a major role in the sexual assaults and that victim assistance was inadequate, Roche said.
At least half of the rape cases reviewed in Begert's command involved the use of alcohol.
"It's there big time -- big time," Roche said.
The review in Begert's Pacific region showed that airmen were accused of 92 rapes from 2001 to 2003.
Roche said the Begert sampling told him that the doubt his wife raised was "worth addressing more broadly."
Now the Air Force is reviewing sexual assaults throughout the service.
While the results are not complete, it is clear the problem is not limited to the Pacific region. The Air Force said that since Sept. 11, 2001, it has had 13 sexual-assault cases involving Air Force personnel in the Central Command region, mostly the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, but none in Iraq or Afghanistan.
In eight of those 13 cases, Air Force women were the alleged victims. The five other cases included two instances of an Air Force male assaulting another Air Force male, an Army female assaulted by an Air Force male, and a host-nation female assaulted by an Air Force male.
Asked whether rape appears to be an Air Force-wide problem, Roche did not answer directly but said it was clear to him that the alcohol link is systemic. "Every place we look we seem to see it," he said.
He said the reviews have found that the rape-victim assistance was set up in such a way that if criminal charges were not brought against the accused, then all assistance to the accuser was dropped.
"That's just dumb," he said, and it is being changed.
Asked whether he believed he was at fault for not recognizing earlier that rape was a serious problem, Roche said, "I'm the captain of the ship, so I'm at fault for everything."
He added that he believes Air Force leaders moved as swiftly as could reasonably be expected once they looked closely at the Pacific.