More than half of Air Force and Space Force personnel who responded to a survey said they’ve experienced some type of mental or physical abuse in the past two years, ranging from workplace bullying and hazing to rape or murder, according to a report released Tuesday,
Of the roughly 68,000 active duty personnel, reserves and civilians who responded to the survey, nearly two-thirds of the women and 48% of the men described incidents of what the Air Force called “interpersonal violence.” Most said they never reported it to commanders or law enforcement, and many of those who did believed that nothing would be done about it.
The report is the latest in a series of Defense Department and service reviews underscoring the problems of violence and harassment across the military. Although it’s difficult to compare rates among service members with civilian violence in the nation, senior military leaders say troops are held to higher scrutiny.
Only about 10% of all Air Force military and civilian personnel responded to the survey, so the totals don’t reflect the actual amount of violence. Since dependents weren’t surveyed, that type of domestic abuse would not be included.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendell said the percentage of those reporting violence may skew high because people who had experienced an incident were more likely to fill out the survey.
But, he added, that “even if that’s all there is, it’s too much,” and it’s a problem the Air Force must address.
“The numbers are big enough that we need to take this incredibly seriously and act on it,” he said.
Members of Congress have persistently complained about the military’s failure to adequately address the prevention and prosecution of violence, particularly sexual assaults. The Air Force review was launched last year after several violent deaths, including the murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who was missing at Fort Hood, Texas, for about two months before her remains were found late last June.
Speaking to reporters, Air Force leaders said they identified 81 harmful behaviors, ranging from lewd jokes and belittling to spying, stalking and more violent physical attacks. And they said that workplace bullying was the most common complaint.
Brig. Gen. April Vogel said incidents of what would be considered less violent, emotional abuse were included because “it is proven that when lower level behaviors that are inappropriate are allowed to flourish, it creates an environment where worse, more egregious types of behaviors can happen.”
The report also noted that while most victims weren’t satisfied with the support or help they got, commanders believed they had the resources and training to respond to any incidents. That disconnect, said Air Force leaders, suggests an underlying leadership problem where those in command aren’t perceiving or recognizing issues that need to be addressed.
The interpersonal violence task force, set up in 2020, concluded that support for victims at their home bases must be better coordinated and less confusing. And it recommended ways to make it easier for victims to seek out support and to encourage increased reporting of incidents.
The review also said that personnel want greater accountability, more approachable leadership and increased training and education. The Air Force has also introduced a pilot program to expand legal services for victims.
The Air Force on Tuesday also released additional findings from its gender and racial disparity reviews, concluding that Black and other minority women are vastly underrepresented in leadership and officer positions, particularly at the senior levels, and get promoted less frequently.
The review found that while women as a whole had made gains in the service and were well represented in some promotion categories, those more often involved white women. Specifically, it said that Black female officers were promoted at lower rates than others, including less frequently than officers with less command experience.
As an example, minority women make up less than 1% of the active duty pilots. The report also found that minority female officers had the most negative views on racism and bias, and didn’t trust that their commanders would address derogatory behavior or comments.
The Air Force findings are the latest in a series of reports focusing on gender and racial bias across the service.
The first report, released last December looked at disparities for Black service members. It concluded that Black service members were far more likely to be investigated, arrested, face disciplinary actions and be discharged for misconduct.
The second report involved women, Asian, American Indian/Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander and Hispanic/Latino personnel in active duty, the National Guard, Reserves and civilian workforce. It found that about a third of the female service members in the Air Force and Space Force say they’ve experienced sexual harassment and many can describe accounts of sexism and a stigma associated with pregnancy and maternity leave.