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US Air Force chief regrets comments on 'hookup' culture

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (4th L) meets senior military officials on March 1, 2013 at the Pentagon in Virginia
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (4th L) meets Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh (2nd L) and other senior military officials on March 1, 2013 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Air Force Chief Walsh said Friday he regretted comments he m

The chief of the US Air Force said Friday he regretted comments he made last week seeming to suggest a "hookup culture" in society was partly to blame for a sexual assault crisis in the military.

General Mark Welsh said he was "sorry" that his remarks before the Senate Armed Services Committee were interpreted by some to mean he was blaming victims of rape and sexual crimes.

"If I had to do this over again, I would take more time to answer the question," Welsh told reporters.

The four-star general said he had been trying to convey the importance of instilling "respect for women" in every member of the air force, and that those who sexually assault female troops clearly lack that moral value.

"In view of the fact that there are victims who took what I said as blaming them, boy, I am sorry about that," he said.

His comments last week, in which he cited the prevalence of casual sex among young people, incensed lawmakers already outraged over the Pentagon's handling of the problem.

Welsh said he viewed sexual assault as a "crisis" in the air force and that the problem was his "number one priority."

The air force is under intense scrutiny over the issue after a scandal at its main basic training center in Lackland, Texas, where 17 instructors have been convicted on charges of misconduct, including sexual assault.

And last week, the officer in charge of the Air Force's sexual assault prevention efforts was arrested for allegedly grabbing a woman's buttocks and breasts in a parking lot in Arlington, Virginia, near the Pentagon. The victim managed to fight him off, according to a police report.

Welsh spoke to reporters a day after he and the other military service chiefs and secretaries met President Barack Obama to discuss how to address the problem.

Sexual assault victims testify about being sexually assaulted while in the military on March 13, 2013 in Washington, DC
Rebekah Havrilla (L), a former sergeant in the US Army, and Brian Lewis, former petty officer third class in the US Navy, testify about being sexually assaulted while in the military during a hearing on March 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

"Our commander-in-chief made it very clear how he feels about this issue," Welsh said of the White House meeting.

Obama has spoken bluntly about the wave of sexual assaults, saying last week: "We're not going to tolerate this stuff. There will be accountability."

Welsh also said he was open to proposed changes in the military's legal code that would remove authority from commanders to reverse convictions in sexual assault cases.

Two air force generals recently tossed out sexual assault convictions in two cases, prompting calls in Congress to remove sex crime cases from the military's chain of command.

Welsh acknowledged that the perception of those two cases and his own remarks to senators last week might have sent a counter-productive message at a time when the air force is seeking to reassure victims of sexual assault.

"That doesn't help us," said the general.

However, he said the generals who weighed in on those two sex assault cases had followed the law and weighed all the evidence.

The Pentagon last week released a report outlining a six percent rise in reported sexual assaults in the military last year and a dramatic spike in anonymous claims of "unwanted sexual contact," which jumped from about 19,000 in 2010 to 26,000 in 2012.

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