ALBANY, N.Y. -- A high-profile New York Air National Guard airlift wing has promoted sexual abusers instead of punishing them, according to the retired officer who handled claims of sexual assault in the unit.
"I can tell you from my firsthand experiences in this position, the program is BROKE, the commanders do not protect the victims or allow any follow up medical assistance," retired Lt. Col. Sharon Dwyer Stepp wrote in a letter she provided to The Associated Press on Thursday. "The perpetrators do not get punished, but instead are promoted."
Stepp, of Bennington, Vt., sent the letter to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on Wednesday after getting "fed up" by the spate of sex scandals roiling the U.S. military. The same day, officials at the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs told the AP the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing was being investigated for "officer misconduct."
Col. Richard Goldenberg, a spokesman for the division, wouldn't comment on specifics of the investigation or say if it involves sexual misconduct.
Stepp, the Scotia-based unit's sexual assault prevention and response coordinator from 2006-2010, said in her letter that the military's program "is truly ineffective and a waste of tax payers money."
"It still makes me angry that it's happening across the country and they still don't do anything," the 37-year veteran who received an honorable discharge in 2010 told the AP.
Goldenberg said he had no knowledge of Stepp's allegations and couldn't comment on them.
"Our New York Air National Guard takes sexual harassment and sexual assault very seriously at all levels of command," Goldenberg said. "Since 2010 the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program has changed immensely and all incidents are investigated promptly and resolved within the regulatory or legal system."
Goldenberg said there was an allegation last October of sexual misconduct at the 109th, but the Air Force Office of Special Investigation determined that the case didn't rise to the level of sexual assault and didn't conduct an investigation.
A recent Pentagon report said as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2011. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has been leading efforts in Congress to overhaul the way the military justice system handles sexual assault cases.
Division officials said the current investigation of the 109th was requested by Maj. Gen. Patrick Murphy, the head of New York's Army and Air National Guard forces, and is being led by Brig. Gen. Deborah Carter of the New Hampshire Air National Guard. Goldenberg said Carter was recently at the unit's base conducting what's called a commander-directed investigation into "several allegations" involving officers in the wing.
The 109th is the only unit in the U.S. military flying "Skibirds," ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules cargo planes capable of landing on snow and ice. The crews and their planes support research efforts on Antarctica.
In 1999, the unit gained international acclaim after Dr. Jerri Nielsen diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer while working at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. With the next plane not due for months, a crew from the 109th landed in 58-below zero weather that October and brought her out of Antarctica.
The unit also flies regular missions to Greenland and has been deployed overseas in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stepp said she enlisted in the Air Force in 1972, and after two years in the Reserves, joined the New York Air National Guard in 1978 as a staff sergeant. During her time as head of her unit's sexual assault prevention and response officer, Stepp said she brought several sexual harassment and assault incidents to the attention of her superiors at the 109th. None of the victims filed formal complaints because all were worried about the effects it would have on their careers, so no disciplinary action was taken against the abusers, she said.
"I was always the one to ring the bell, to say, `C'mon guys, you can't drop this one. You've got to address it,' " Stepp told the AP.
She supports Gillibrand's proposal, rebuffed this week by the Senate Armed Services Committee, that commanders be removed from the process of deciding whether serious crimes, including sexual misconduct cases, go to trial.