MADISON, Wis. — Sen. Tammy Baldwin has asked Air Force investigators to look into allegations of sexual assault and harassment within a Wisconsin Air National Guard unit that were brushed aside by senior officers, according to a member of the unit.
The Wisconsin Democrat sent a letter to the Air Force office that handles congressional inquiries in mid-November asking it to investigate the claims involving members of the 115th Fighter Wing's Security Forces Squadron, a group of about 100 airmen that polices the Truax Field Air National Guard Base in Madison.
Baldwin made the request after receiving a letter from Jay Ellis, a master sergeant in the security squadron. Ellis wrote that he learned of six incidents of sexual harassment or sexual assault against female members of the squadron that happened between 2002 and 2016, and that high-ranking officers have done little to address them.
"There's a culture in our unit ... (that) sexual misconduct, depending on who does it, it's no big deal," Ellis told The Associated Press during a recent interview.
Sexual assaults have plagued the U.S. military for years. In fiscal year 2017 alone the four branches received 5,864 reports from military members who said they had been sexually assaulted sometime during their service, up 10 percent from 2016, according to Department of Defense data.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations, or AFOSI, told Baldwin that her request had been referred to personnel responsible for the Madison area. Baldwin wrote back asking the office to confirm an investigation had begun.
"If there is a culture of sexual harassment at Truax field it is imperative that steps be fully taken to expose improper action and take remedial action to ensure a safe and appropriate work environment," Baldwin wrote.
AFOSI officials didn't respond to an email from the AP asking whether an investigation was underway. Ellis told the AP that investigators from Scott Air Force Base in Illinois contacted him on Nov. 16 and asked him for details of the incidents and the names of those involved.
Maj. Penny Ripperger, a spokeswoman for the 115th Fighter Wing, said Thursday that as far as she knew, AFOSI investigators had not reached out to anyone on the division's leadership team regarding Ellis' allegations.
Asked if a culture of sexual harassment or assault exists within the wing, she said such behavior isn't tolerated and that allegations are taken seriously. Airmen receive frequent training on sexual assault and harassment that includes how to report incidents confidentially, she said.
"Our organization actively encourages a culture of reporting and seeks to foster an environment where victims feel comfortable coming forward," Ripperger said.
Ellis said there's no documentation of the incidents he brought to Baldwin's attention because the women didn't file formal complaints.
One of the women described her ordeal during a recent interview with the AP. She spoke on condition of anonymity. The AP typically doesn't identify alleged sexual assault victims without their permission.
The woman said she and a friend were sexually assaulted by superior officers in the security unit during a 2002 party at Silver Flag Alpha Range, a training base outside Las Vegas, as the unit was preparing to deploy to Iraq. She said she didn't file a formal complaint because she feared retaliation, but that she did report the assault to her fire team commander, Pat Konz.
Konz, who was then a technical sergeant but who has since retired from the Air National Guard, told the AP that he documented the woman's claims in his personal notes, which the woman supplied the AP. Konz said he passed on the allegations to a senior master sergeant in the security unit, but it only resulted in the woman being harassed during the deployment.
Ellis also alleges that in 2008 at the Madison base, a technical sergeant made inappropriate remarks to female airmen, and that he tried to kiss one and choked two others. Among those who said he made "crass" remarks to was the woman who told the AP she was assaulted at the Nevada base in 2002.
Ellis said he met with the security unit's commander, Maj. Kristin Boustany, twice in 2015 to discuss the toxic culture of bullying and hostility within the unit. He said he didn't raise the sexual misconduct allegations with her because he didn't have the victims' permission.
He told the AP that he approached military equal opportunity officials last October with the allegations, but the office wanted to talk to the only victim still with the National Guard and she refused to come forward.
In his letter to Baldwin, Ellis also alleges that in 2016, a female officer was discussing her sex life with a male officer during a break in training. A more senior male officer chimed in from across the room so that everyone could hear, Ellis wrote, noting that it was "inappropriate" for him to have done so.
Ellis said he reported the incident in an anonymous morale survey that went to Boustany, who in response warned the entire unit to "know your audience" during two assemblies in 2017.
Ripperger, the 115th spokeswoman, said Boustany wasn't available for an interview. She also disputed that Boustany was in command of the squadron in 2015, saying she didn't take over until 2017. Ripperger didn't immediately respond to a follow-up query to clarify Boustany's assignment in 2015.
The AP tried to get comment from the men accused in the six incidents that Ellis cited in his letter. It was unable to find a phone number, address or email address for one of the men and the others either declined to discuss the allegations or didn't reply to voicemails or emails.
Ellis said he decided to come forward now because he doesn't fear retaliation with just two years to go until he retires.
"This culture has created, and continues to promote an incredibly hostile and toxic work environment," Ellis wrote to Baldwin. "I am asking for someone, anyone, to further investigate what has been happening at the 115th SFS."