WASHINGTON — Likening sexual assault in the Air Force’s ranks to a cancer, the service’s top officer resolved Wednesday to tackle the problem by screening personnel more carefully and ending bad behaviors like binge drinking that can lead to misconduct.
But General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, underscored the challenge by telling a House oversight committee that the service recorded a disturbing number of reports of sexual assault last year even as it worked to curb misconduct following a sex scandal at its training headquarters in Texas.
Dozens of female recruits and airmen at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio were victimized by instructors who sexually harassed, improperly touched, or raped them.
Most difficult, Welsh said, is transforming a culture in which victims are often reluctant to report what happened because of guilt, shame, or fear they won’t be believed.
‘‘Why, on what was undoubtedly the worst day of a victim’s life, did they not turn to us for help?’’ Welsh said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.
An Air Force veteran who was sexually assaulted while serving — but not at Lackland — described how intimidating it is for young enlisted personnel to speak up. ‘‘You’re stuck,’’ Jennifer Norris said. ‘‘If you want a career, you don’t want to say anything because you get retaliated against.’’
Lawmakers urged the generals to accelerate their efforts. The sexual assaults were a ‘‘crime that continues to shock us with its regularity,’ said Representative Niki Tsongas, Democrat of Lowell and co-chair of the House Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus. ‘‘In order for changes to really take hold the culture of the military has to change.’’