Air Force Rocked by Increasingly Major Sexual Assault Scandal

A sex scandal is right now spreading through the Air Force that is threatening to become one of the biggest in military history. There are allegations that a dozen male boot-camp instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas assaulted, harassed, or had sex with female recruits under their command. All told there have been 31 victims identified so far, and there are signs that this is but a hint of a much more widespread problem in the Air Force's training program.

The investigation centers on a particular unit of boot-camp instructors at Lackland where each year 36,000 recruits undergo basic training. It began back in June of last year, when a female recruit said she'd been sexually harassed. Four months later, three instructors came forward to report that the misconduct among their colleagues was far more widespread. All of the 31 victims identified thus far are still in the Air Force.

Charges have so far been filed against six instructors, and the allegations range from rape to having "improper sexual relations" with trainees. One trainer who admitted to having inappropriate relationships with 10 of his trainees has taken a plea deal and was sentenced to 90 days in prison, 30 days hard labor, and a demotion. He has agreed to testify against two other trainers who've been chaged. There are six additional instructors being investigated who have not yet been charged. The commander of the 331st Training Squadron, Lt. Col. Michael Paquette, was also relieved of duty by the Air Force because of "an unacceptable level of misconduct" in his unit. Officials say that most of the misconduct happened while recruits were in basic training—under the care of instructors who abused them—but in some cases the contact happened after recruits had moved on to other programs.

The extent of the problem that's so far been uncovered has made this the worst sex scandal since the events at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where, back in 1996, 12 male soldiers were found to have abused female recruits and trainees. The Air Force appears to be taking this current scandal very seriously and has launched an aggressive investigation in multiple units to determine just how widespread this harassment of female recruits is and whether they need to change something in how they select male instructors to prevent further problems.

General Edward A. Rice Jr, who is the commander of training and education for the Air Force, said yesterday, "We are leaving no stone unturned. I am being as aggressive as I can." He also said he is "actively seek[ing] any others that may have been affected by this." Though he's casting a wide net, he says he's not convinced this is an Air Force-wide problem:

Nine of those 12 were in one unit. We have a total of nine squadrons, and nine of them came from one squadron. So in my assessment to this point, it is not an issue of an endemic problem throughout basic military training. It is more localized.

This scandal is gaining attention fast, and Rice went to Washington briefing lawmakers and Pentagon leaders on what's happening with the investigation. A two-star general has also been appointed to investigate whether Lackland and other training centers had "systemic issues" that led to sexual misconduct. That certainly would not be a surprise, given the difficulties the military has had of late with sexual assaults.

Representative Jackie Speier (D-California) is alarmed by the current scandal, and also compares it to Aberdeen. She is urging the House Armed Services Committee to hold hearings to get to the bottom of it. She also says the military needs to rework its judicial system so that these kinds of incidents are handled outside the chain of command, which makes it much more likely that commanders won't try to cover up what's happened to make themselves look better. In addition to that, there's also the problem that coming forward to report abuses is incredibly difficult at any time, but especially in a training atmosphere. Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine officer who is now the executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, says boot camp is "a target-rich environment" for abuse because the instructors have such total control over their recruits. She says,

It's the kind of environment where you're being yelled at 24-7, where you're terrified of everybody around you. How are you supposed to ask for help if you're the victim of sexual assault?

It's possible this investigation will be explosive enough to actually achieve some change in the way Air Force recruits are trained. Right now, about 22 percent of Air Force recruits are female, but only 11 percent of the instructors are women. Rice has said, "I will look at whether we need to hire more female MTIs, and whether we need to have only female MTIs over female trainees." It's hard to know whether segregation would make things worse in the long run, but surely having more female trainers in the mix would change the atmosphere and make it more likely that both female recruits would feel comfortable coming forward and trainers were more likely to report their colleagues' misconduct.

Unfortunately, the issue of reporting abuses is just one of the difficulties the military is having to deal with as it struggles to adjust to having increasing numbers of female recruits. Last year there were 3,200 instances of sexual assault that were reported by the armed services, but the Pentagon estimates that's only a tiny fraction of what actually went on. Their best guess is that there were actually about 19,000 incidents that took place. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been pushing policies meant to change the culture and make it easier for victims of sexual assault to come forward and receive proper investigation. But it remains to be seen how effective any of that will be. Of course, any improvements will come too late for the 31 victims of the abuses at Lackland.

31 victims identified in widening Air Force sex scandal [CNN]
Air Force investigates growing sex-abuse scandal [Washington Post]