September 1, 2012 (TSR) – For a decade before a sex scandal engulfed Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Air Force officials knew about persistent problems with basic training instructors seeking sexual relationships with trainees.
Between September 2002 and December 2011, 24 instructors, most of them male, faced administrative or criminal charges stemming from illicit conduct with trainees, according to records obtained by the San Antonio Express-News.
In 13 of the cases, instructors had sexual relationships with one or more trainees. The remainder of the accusations stemmed from sexual comments or improper social relationships with recruits.
Most often, the misconduct was handled in closed-door administrative hearings that shielded the names of the instructors, the details of the accusations and the number of trainees involved in each case.
Air Force officials characterized all of the sexual relationships as consensual.
The previous cases set the stage for a sweeping investigation that began in June 2011 with reports that then-training instructor Luis A. Walker was forcing himself on recruits.
The case against Walker, who was sentenced last month to 20 years in prison for sexually preying on 10 recruits, triggered the largest military sex scandal in the past decade.
The number of instructors who have come under investigation for improper conduct with trainees rose Saturday from 15 to 17, including three trainers who already have been convicted.
As the investigation continues to widen, the tally of victims has grown to 43.
In graphic courtroom testimony, some of the young women have recounted how they were ordered to go to darkened supply rooms and empty dorms, where they were subjected to unwanted advances by instructors who wielded near-absolute power over them.
As three of the trainers prepare to face courts-martial before mid-October, the earlier cases point to a troubling question that overshadows the lurid details to come: Did the Air Force fail to spot a culture of sexual misbehavior within its elite instructor corps?
Gen. Edward Rice Jr., commander of the Air Education and Training Command, said the military justice system worked as it should, including its Article 15 nonjudicial disciplinary proceedings, which are held in private.
The number of instructors who were disciplined shows the Air Force had sufficient protections in place, detected the misconduct and held offenders accountable while also treating them with fairness, he said.
“I think our judicial system tries to strike a balance between, certainly, protecting the rights of innocent people and ensuring that we can find justice,” Rice said, adding that in “the civilian judicial system, there’s always a balance, and I think we struck the right balance in that regard. I’m not criticizing or critical of the Article 15 process.”
The scandal has reverberated in Lackland’s upper ranks.
The Air Force removed two key commanders this summer from their posts: Col. Glenn Palmer, who arrived at the base a year ago and was in charge of the 737th Training Group when allegations began to build, and Lt. Col. Mike Paquette, commander of the 331st Training Squadron, where most of the accused instructors had worked.
The reason cited was a “loss of confidence” in their leadership. But the Air Force has been tight-lipped about what prompted the removals, saying only that in Paquette’s case, he should have been aware of what had been happening in his squadron.
Advocates said the cases show the Air Force had substantial evidence of an endemic problem at Lackland, home to all basic training with about 35,000 graduates a year.
Citing Defense Department statistics that show only about 14 percent of unwanted sexual contact in the military is reported, experts suggested the cases reflect only a fraction of the true extent of the misconduct.
“The reality is that they were put on notice by these previous cases,” said Washington, D.C., civil rights attorney Susan Burke, who represents victims of sexual assault in claims against the military. “What we’ve seen in the past is that the military approaches these cases as one-offs — isolated incidents. They should have known there were more victims. But they don’t connect the dots.”
Privacy and lenience
Records of the 2002-2011 cases show commanders handled allegations against all but 10 instructors in confidential hearings.
Among those protected from public scrutiny were three staff sergeants who had sexual relationships with trainees. Two of the sergeants had sex with more than one trainee.
The decisions to treat those and 11 other cases as private matters were made by commanders, who wield broad discretion over how to handle accusations against their subordinates.
If commanders view the evidence to be lacking or the allegations appear mild enough to warrant leniency, keeping cases out of a courtroom can spare the accused from grave damage to their careers.
Commanders also have the power to suspend the punishments they impose. Eight instructors — including the two staff sergeants who had sex with multiple trainees — won lighter penalties.
One was a staff sergeant who had sex with two of his former basic training recruits in 2009 while they were in technical school. He received a reprimand and a reduction in rank by one pay grade, but the commander suspended more than $2,200 in fines.
Another staff sergeant, who had sexual relationships with two students in technical school in 2004, was spared from a $1,000 fine and demoted by one rank.
Military law experts questioned the decision to handle such cases in private hearings.
“Nonjudicial punishment is designed to address relatively minor lapses in judgment,” said attorney Roger Canaff, who serves as an expert to military prosecutors on sexual assault cases. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for (cases involving) hands-on contact, particularly this profound sexual contact such as sexual intercourse.”
Scant public records make it unclear whether any of the sexual overtures that stopped short of physical contact by instructors were unwanted.
But Air Force officials said commanders almost certainly would have required trainers suspected of non-consensual touching to face a court-martial.
Geoffrey Corn, South Texas College of Law professor who served as an Army lawyer, said the lack of court records makes it impossible to second-guess the discretion of commanders.
Those decisions may have been appropriate under the circumstances, he said, and he emphasized that funneling accusations into administrative hearings doesn’t necessarily amount to favorable treatment.
Even closed-door disciplinary proceedings can devastate a career. Non-commissioned officers with a record of misconduct may not be allowed to re-enlist or reach retirement, he said.
“Overall, I certainly could not say that this has or has not contributed to the problem,” Corn said.
But in hindsight, given the revelations of the current scandal, commanders may have failed to grasp the cumulative impact of keeping so many cases out of courtrooms, he said.
“If there had been a couple of courts-martial right out of the gate, that might have had a greater deterrent effect,” said Corn, a retired lieutenant colonel. “I would suspect that some of the commanders who chose (private hearings) and issued those punishments probably in retrospect might have some regret.”
Past as prologue
Not all of the sexual misdeeds were handled as private matters, but most went without public notice.
Records show that 10 of the 13 instructors who had sex with trainees in the past decade faced courts-martial. Six of them also received bad-conduct discharges.
The Express-News is not naming the instructors because the Air Force has not fully identified them and they couldn’t be reached for comment.
The circumstances surrounding the misconduct bore a prophetic resemblance to the cases now unfolding.
Several instructors met the recruits while they were assigned to their squadrons in basic training and had sex with them during their graduation weekend or shortly after they shipped out to their next posts at technical school. Five instructors had sexual relationships with more than one trainee. In 2008, a staff sergeant in the 331st Training Squadron — the unit linked to most instructors in the ongoing scandal — was convicted of having sex with three basic training recruits.
That year, another staff sergeant was found guilty of having a sexual relationship with a recruit and for watching another trainee take a shower.
In 2009, a technical sergeant had sex with two recruits who had been in his basic training unit.
Shortly after their graduation, he drove to Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, where both women had gone to technical school. The instructor met with one student, had sex with her off base and then returned her before curfew. Some time later, the instructor picked up the second student in a parking lot, had sex with her and took her back to the base.
The Air Force did not provide trial transcripts, but the pattern that emerges from legal summaries is familiar — older instructors repeatedly targeting inexperienced trainees for illicit relationships. With the extraordinary power afforded to them in the basic training setting, it was easy for instructors to single out trainees who caught their eye.
Then as now, it remains unclear to what extent other instructors knew about or engaged in similar behavior.
Answers are expected to come soon from a recently completed but as yet unreleased investigation led by Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward into whether a culture of tolerating sexual misdeeds fostered the scandal.
Other aspects of the military climate, such as heavy emphasis on success, may have played a role.
In the ranks of a military focused on succeeding no matter how difficult the mission, many are reluctant to report problems lest they be seen as malcontents, said retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis, a professor at Howard University School of Law. Supervisors, who could be judged by the performance of their subordinates, have personal incentives to keep problems quiet, he said.
“You are going to try to paint the rosiest picture possible,” Davis said. “If you start calling attention to problems, that could stymie your efforts to advance your career.”
Rice, however, said one of his principal messages to all commanders “is that they’ve got to establish the conditions where people will not be afraid to tell them bad news.” He went on to say that “most commanders that I know of stress the importance of up-channeling bad news and up-channeling it early, such that we can deal with it.”
While Rice would not discuss the findings of Woodward’s study, he said he does not believe that commanders at Lackland discouraged bad-news reports.
He said the Air Force is determined to eradicate sexual misconduct among instructors, including relationships with trainees deemed to be consensual, saying: “I intend to do everything I can to drive this down to zero.”
Whether that happens isn’t yet clear to Rice, but he hinted at broad, transformative reforms to come from Woodward’s report.
Lackland already has been subject to a raft of stricter rules spurred by the scandal. Recruits must always have a wingman at their side, commanders make unannounced checks on instructors, and trainers no longer see their recruits off to technical training.
The steps coincide with a directive from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that more senior commanders handle sexual assault allegations.
The reform, which took effect in June, is aimed at removing decisions from those who directly supervise the accused.
But advocates expressed skepticism about whether those efforts will prove successful in the long term, and with good reason. There are indications that sexual misdeeds by instructors have permeated Lackland for decades.
In 2001, the Express-News reported that 20 instructors had been convicted in court for sexual misconduct with trainees in the previous five years. Most of them were men, but one woman was given six years for trysts she and other instructors had with technical training students.
Anu Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women’s Action Network, pointed out that military sex scandals cycle through the news every few years, bringing pledges of reforms, yet the troubles inevitably reappear.
As the current sex abuse allegations wind through the courts, the climate at Lackland likely will remain hypervigilant, she said. But after the turmoil subsides, she predicted, the misconduct will creep back.
The problem will outlast reforms until the military tackles the most deeply rooted causes, she said, including a minute number of women in the armed services, which she said fuels a climate in which women are objectified.
“And that’s a dynamic which we can help get rid of if there are more women at every level,” Bhagwati said.
“But you have to really flood the system with women, you can’t just have 2 percent more here and there,” she said.
“The Air Force has completely failed on this issue and once the branch acknowledges that they can move on. It’s a huge opportunity to fix the system.”