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Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh wants to make it very clear that he was not blaming victims of sexual assault when he mentioned the "hookup mentality" during a recent hearing.
"What I was getting at was the fact that if you have people who come into the military who come from a lifestyle where they don't typically respect — in the same way we in the military would respect — the feelings, the concerns, the issues of others, then you have people that if they get in a bad situation will take advantage of others," Welsh told Air Force Times in a May 17 interview.
Welsh told lawmakers at a May 7 Senate Armed Services hearing that about 20 percent of the women who join the Defense Department and the Air Force report they were sexually assaulted before they came into the military.
"So, they come in from a society where this occurs," he said. "Some of it is the hookup mentality of junior high even and high school students now, which my children can tell you about from watching their friends and being frustrated by it."
Those comments led to an outcry from critics, who said Welsh was chastising victims of sexual assault. Welsh told Air Force Times he regrets if any victims felt he was blaming them.
"I have never blamed victims for sexual assault — I would never do that," he said. "My regret is that there's any victim out there who feels that way. That was clearly not the message I was intending to send and if in fact that was the message that went out, I apologize for any part of that I was responsible for — some of that is beyond my control."
Welsh said he has become increasingly sensitive about his word choice since becoming chief of staff to avoid such misinterpretations. In one of his first public speeches in this role, Welsh introduced his wife as a "babe," a term of endearment he has since stopped using in public.
"If you ask my wife, she's flattered by it," Welsh said. "If you ask other women, they might say, 'Well, that's kind of a strange thing to say in public. I've had one man tell me that — not a woman — that he thought you've got to be careful about that. Since he said that, I haven't said it."
Welsh said he has been taken aback by the hurricane of criticism he has come under since making the remarks. His message was the exact opposite of what some lawmakers and victims' advocates thought he said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., assailed the comment in a television interview soon after the hearing ended.
"To begin to attribute sexual-assault rates in the military to a hookup culture in high school is beyond belief," she said on MSNBC. "We're talking about violent crimes, committed by aggressors, perpetrators who are often targeting victims specifically. This is a violent act. This is not a date gone badly."
Critics such as Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., interpreted Welsh's comments as chastising victims of sexual assault.
"Gen. Welsh's 'hookup' comment is a misplaced excuse by a top Pentagon official who doesn't get it. I have no time for excuses. Congress needs to hold these officials accountable for ending a culture in the armed forces that has failed to stamp out sexual violence," she told Air Force Times.
Welsh's comments came as the Pentagon drew sharp scrutiny for several new sexual assault scandals and a report that estimated 26,000 service members had been sexually assaulted in 2012. On May 16, President Obama called Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, Welsh and the other service chiefs to the White House to discuss the problem.
It's important for military leadership on all levels to understand that sexual assaults are violent crimes, not incidents that result from "the follies of youth," said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network.
Jennifer Norris, a retired Air National Guardsman who was sexually harassed and assaulted by a supervisor, said Welsh's comments sent the message that victims are somehow responsible for what happens to them.
"There is a difference between consensual sex and violent crimes," she said. "This is not about the hookup culture. [To victims,] it sends the message you are screwed from the top down."
Norris, who now works as a national victim advocate for the Military Rape Crisis Center, said she was a defender of Welsh until he uttered those words.
"I thought, 'He seems to get it. He seems to care.' ... He may not have meant to sound so victim-blaming and ignorant, but he did. It showed he clearly does not understand the modus operandi of predators."
Welsh said he has been clear on the record and with his subordinates that he does not blame victims.
"I tell you this: In the Air Force, you can be absolutely sure that's not true and I will be happy to come talk to you personally and explain this to you — to every victim if they have that concern."■