Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward handled two sexual assault complaints in four years as an Air Force wing commander. Both times, she recalls, the accusers recanted, ending the investigations. Both times, General Woodward assumed the assaults never took place.
She sees things differently today. While overseeing the Air Force’s investigation of sexual abuses at Lackland Air Force Base last year, she learned that victims often withdrew complaints because they blamed themselves, were ashamed or feared no one would believe them.
“I didn’t know enough to try and at least look into it and help,” she said. “You sit there and go, ‘Could I have made a difference?’ ”
The general is getting her chance to make a difference now. Last month, the Air Force named her to run a significantly expanded office in charge of its sexual assault prevention and response policies.
Among her main goals, the general said in an interview, will be to encourage more airmen and women to not only report sexual assault but also pursue prosecution. Providing good care for victims will help in that pursuit, she said, but so will improving the way cases are handled, from initial reports through investigations and prosecutions.
“How a person is treated in that first report can determine how she is going to handle it up the chain,” the general said. “And even how her recovery goes.”
General Woodward’s hiring represents not just an expansion of the sexual assault office, but also a significant elevation of its importance, as her predecessor was a lieutenant colonel. The move comes as the entire military is under fierce Congressional pressure to reduce sexual assault, fueled partly by a recent report estimating that 26,000 assaults took place in the military last year, up from 19,000 two years before.
Though its rate of sexual assault is not significantly different from the rest of the military, the Air Force has had a run of particularly bad publicity. Last year, a series of courts-martial at Lackland revealed widespread sexual misbehavior involving instructors and recruits in training programs. This year, two Air Force generals have come under fire for their handling of sexual assault cases: one for reversing a conviction, the other for granting clemency to a convicted officer.
But perhaps most embarrassing, General Woodward’s predecessor as director of the sexual assault response unit, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, was arrested in May on a sexual battery charge. The police said he groped a woman he did not know in a parking lot near the Pentagon.
Just a few weeks after that arrest, General Woodward, then chief of safety for the Air Force, received a call from Gen. Larry O. Spencer, the vice chief of staff, asking her to lead an expanded sexual assault office. After she demurred, he called back the next day, a Friday, to ask again. When she finally agreed to take the job, General Spencer told her she would start on Monday.
In an interview, General Spencer denied that the Air Force had rushed to expand the office because of Colonel Krusinski’s arrest. But he acknowledged shortcomings in the Air Force’s efforts to fight sexual assault. “Whatever we were doing obviously did not solve the problem,” he said.
Putting the office under a two-star general who reports directly to him is just part of a broader campaign, General Spencer said. “I am on a rampage to stamp out sexual assault,” he said. “We’re pursuing this with as much vigor as anything I’ve ever seen.”
This year, the Air Force created the new position of special victims counsel to help sexual assault victims navigate the legal process. It has also begun requiring that all sex crime cases be reported up the chain of command to general officers to increase oversight. It will soon begin an online campaign to educate airmen on sexual assault, and this fall it will require wing commanders and general officers to attend a sexual assault conference.
General Spencer said that vigorous prosecution of perpetrators would be crucial to curbing the problem, likening the Air Force effort to the campaign to reduce drunken driving two decades ago. Though General Woodward’s office does not oversee investigators or prosecutors, she said she hoped to influence them through training and education programs.
General Woodward, 53, has the authority to hire a staff of 31, eight times as many as who worked in the small branch that Colonel Krusinski directed. Fourteen people have joined so far, including someone with a Ph.D. in social work, an analyst who will crunch statistics and a criminal investigator to provide guidance on how cases are handled.
The newest hire, Master Sgt. Heidi Huff, who volunteers as a victims’ advocate at Andrews Air Force Base, said she hoped the office would succeed in encouraging more people to report assaults.
“From my experience, that’s the toughest part — victims blaming themselves,” said Sergeant Huff, whose full-time job is as a flight attendant. “It makes me cry to think about it.”
Her experience is particularly relevant: in the 1990s, she said, she was sexually assaulted by a service member. Though she reported the attack, the perpetrator was not prosecuted, she said.
The newness of the unit, located on the fifth floor of the Pentagon, is palpable on the empty white walls of General Woodward’s office. Photographs she intends to hang sit on the floor awaiting hooks.
Among them is a picture that underscores her Air Force pedigree, showing her with President George W. Bush, with whom she became friendly when she commanded the 89th Airlift Wing, which operates Air Force One.
A pilot who has flown C-130 cargo planes and C-135 refueling tankers, the general has also commanded a wing at MacDill Air Force Base and the 17th Air Force in Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where she directed the NATO air campaign over Libya in 2011.
Her résumé will undoubtedly give her valuable credibility as she tries to influence the commanders who must carry out the policies her office develops. But there is also a sense of humility among her and her staff about the task ahead. “It sounds trite, I know, but we’re building the airplane as we fly it,” she said.
Describing her initial hesitation about taking the job, General Woodward said she expressed concerns to General Spencer about not having the answers for such a complex problem.
“He said that no one does, but that I needed to go out and find them,” she said. “I hope I can do that.”