Air Force Secretary Praises Mass. Bases, Says Force Is 'Turning A Corner' On Sex Assaults

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Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James in the WBUR studios. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James in the WBUR studios. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The fate of U.S. military bases around the country is uncertain.

Faced with pressure to cut defense spending, and the biggest troop draw down since the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon is pursuing a potential Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, but has faced opposition in Congress.

Gov. Charlie Baker recently traveled to Washington, D.C., where he says he spoke with federal officials about the importance of Massachusetts' six military bases.

"As all of this stuff has gotten more and more technologically sophisticated over the course of this past decade or so, what we do here I think becomes even more important."

Deborah Lee James, the secretary of the U.S. Air Force, was in Boston recently for a conference about women veterans and entrepreneurship, and to visit with Massachusetts members of the U.S. Air Force. We talked with her about women in service, the intersection of business and defense and the long-term future of bases in Massachusetts. Listen to the extended version of that conversation here:

(You can listen to the version of this interview that aired on WBUR's Morning Edition at the top of this page.) 


On the work of Massachusetts bases and what she has seen on her visits to the state:

Deborah Lee James: "I am very impressed with everything that I have seen so far in the state of Massachusetts. This is my second visit. My first visit was to Westover Air Force Reserve Base, which has a very important mobility mission. Today, I'm here in the Boston-area in part to visit Hanscom, which has a critical research development and acquisition location for us. Not been as yet to Barnes or Otis, but certainly, the work of our F-15s at Barnes, which are standing watch for homeland defense purposes, very, very critical. And Otis has a very important intelligence, combat communications, so all of these missions are extremely important to us.

"One of the key aspects, I think, which is unique, I'll say, here in Massachusetts, is surrounding these four Air Force installations we just have a multitude of academic and other talent."

On sexual assault and harassment charges in the military:

DLJ: "First of all, I take it very seriously as I travel around the country and travel around the world. An appointment at each and every location that I have always have — and I'm doing it here at Hanscom, as well — is I check in with our SARC, our sexual assault response coordinator. So think of the SARCs as the front-line defenders on sexual assault. They deal with victims. They also do training at different locations. They're the keepers of the statistics; they have good insight into which commanders are supportive of stamping this out and taking a very hard line and having standards and those which may be less so. So I always like to meet personally and privately with them to get a sense of what's going on.

"So here's my take, and this is largely from what the SARCs are reporting to me: We are turning a corner in the Air Force, that we're doing better. That doesn't mean we're doing well enough, but that we're doing better. Our numbers of reports, that is people who come forward and say something happened to me at some point in my life, those are up. The number of actual incidents, year over year, are down. So those two trend lines, we think, are going in the right direction.

"... But retaliation is a big problem, and in my judgment, the greater piece of retaliation is among peers. It's the feeling that people get ostracized. When they bring this up, it might bring shame upon a unit — or this is the perception — and maybe the colleagues and friends don't treat you the same way. There have been indications of some retaliations officially, and those always get investigated and dealt with if that is the case. But our statistics show the greater issue of retaliation is among your friends and peers. So we're attacking that head on with our training this year."

On the first two women to graduate from the Army's elite Ranger School, and what the future looks like for Air Force servicewomen:

DLJ: "We are the most open service of all the services, but we currently have seven jobs closed to women. They tend to relate to the world of special operations. So we, just like the other services, are in the process of putting in place standards. And these standards will be gender neutral, that is to say they will apply equally to men and to women. They will be relevant to the job at hand, and I would anticipate, going forward, once we have these standards in place, that we will likely open up all of those jobs to women, and then qualified women, just like qualified men, will be able to compete."

On threats in the world for the U.S. Air Force:

DLJ: "I put Russia at the top of the list, given what has happened in the Crimea, given what continues to go on in other parts of the Ukraine. We have seen additional aggression in the air by Russian pilots and their bomber forces. It's one of the few countries that could be an existential threat to the United States, because of course, Russia has nuclear weapons. ISIL is up there as well as a top concern, and that's the one that people read about all the time. We are heavily engaged in the fight against ISIL."

This article was originally published on August 24, 2015.

This segment aired on August 24, 2015.

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Dan Mauzy Executive Editor, News
Dan Mauzy is the Executive Editor for News.


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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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