Walker's defense team arriving at the Lackland court house this morning
When United State Air Force Staff Sergeant Luis Walker stands before a court martial on Monday on multiple charges of rape and aggravated sexual assault of female recruits in his training squadron, not only will Walker face the possibility of life in prison, but the Air Force itself is hoping the high profile trial helps begin to wind down a huge sex scandal which has raised basic questions about how America’s military trains its growing, and increasingly vital, female members.
“This is taking away from what I’m supposed to be doing, which is training Airmen warriors to defend our country,” said Lt. Col. Tim Thurston, who commands one of several squadrons which conduct the standard 8 ½ week basic training program for about 35,000 recruits annually, about 20% of whom are women.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time to regain that trust, and we understand that.”
When Walker was charged with misusing his position as a Military Training Instructor, the Air Force term for the roughly 500 sergeants who command the units, or ‘flights’ in which young men and women learn everything from how to salute to how to fire an M-16 rifle, the Air Force found itself sucked into a dark corner of sprawling Lackland Air Force Base, the post in San Antonio which conducts all of the Air Force’s basic military training. Since Walker’s arrest 13 months ago, five more MTI’S have been charged with raping or having inappropriate sexual relations with female trainees, or improperly fraternizing with them. Many are also facing lesser charges, like disobeying an order or adultery, which is a crime under the Uniform Code of Criminal Justice. One of the six has pled guilty, and told prosecutors he had inappropriate sexual relations with ten different women in his training squadron. A total of 31 women have come forward to say they were victims of improper sexual conduct, six MTIs have been told they are under investigation, and 35 more have been removed from their positions pending the ongoing investigation into what has become the largest military sex scandal in 16 years.
“The referred charges against Staff Sergeant Walker involve 10 former basic training students,” said Brent Boller, a spokesman for Joint Base San Antonio, which operates Lackland. He says Walker is facing 28 separate counts.
“The maximum punishment in this case is confinement for life and a dishonorable discharge.”
But female trainees like Duree Purcell, 27, from DuQouin Illinois, say the Air Force has gone out of its way to provide them with avenues to speak out about improper behavior, and they think the scandal is taking away from the importance of their training.
“It’s frustrating sometimes,” she told 1200 WOAI news. “We want to get the message out that we are being professional. We have some bad MTIs, yes, but that’s not how it is with the majority. There are steps to take so we can get out there if there is a problem and we can speak about it.”
Sarah Shaw, a 23 year old trainee from Fayetteville North Carolina, agrees.
“It is frustrating for all of us,” she said. “We came into the Air Force because we knew how high their integrity is. Now they’re looking at us, and they think it’s all scandal, but we don’t see it. We’re working hard to become Airmen, and once we become Airmen, we work hard to become part of the best Air Force we can.”
All of the female cadets 1200 WOAI news talked with said the Air Force has taken extra steps to allow them to express any concerns they have, from placing anonymous complaint boxes in inconspicuous places in the barracks stairwells, to briefing them multiple times on the chain of command. Many said they are so busy conducting training, they haven’t had time to see, or be part of, any inappropriate conduct.
Air Force officials say all 31 women who came forward to report inappropriate conduct are still in the service, and they stress that some reports have been found to be unsubstantiated and the MTI involved has been placed back on duty.
The Air Force says every possible option is being considered for dealing with this problem, including the possibility of having same sex training flights commanded by female MTI’s. Approximately one in ten training instructors at Lackland is a woman, and the female trainees 1200 WOAI news interviewed unanimously said same sex basic training would be a bad idea.
Lt. Col. Thurston, whose command does not include any of the MTIs who have been charged, said that move would be a step backward.
“I would hate to live in an America where we said that women aren’t capable of doing the same things that men do,” he said. “There is absolutely no reason to think that women can’t do every job, so why in the world would we make basic training separate for them. If we do, we are changing the face of America, and we’re saying women should be treated differently. That’s taking a step back.”
Currently male and female trainees are mixed in training flights, which are assigned randomly, and male and female MTIs handle all flights. Thurston and other basic training officials said, ironically, it seems that men do better with female instructors, and women do better with male instructors.
“Males don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of a female instructor, and women look on a male MTI as somewhat of a father figure,” Thurston said.
Col. Eric Axelbank, Commander of the 37th Flying Training Wing, not only supervises all Air Force basic training, but his wing also conducts technical and military training, and even trains military personnel from other countries, mainly from Latin America. He says he is ‘disappointed’ by the scandal on his watch, but stresses that he is ‘peeling the onion back to the core.’
“Within 72 hours of trainees getting here to Lackland, they know their values and they have been briefed on how to pursue allegations up the chain of command,” said Axelbank, who said he would have no problem with his own daughters undergoing basic training in his wing. “We need to have a bond that I can trust you with my life. That is the core of who we are.”
This scandal is challenging that trust. U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif) has more than 70 signatures on a proposal to open Congressional hearings into the Lackland incidents, and, in a speech on the House floor last month, she questioned the willingness of the Air Force to truly get to the bottom of the scandal.
“If the military is as vigilant as they say they are, how could such a repetitive, widespread, and sickening behavior still be occurring?” Speier said. “What is being uncovered at Lackland flies in the face of what we are being told by our military.”
Thurston says the reason America knows about the extent of the allegations is simply because they are being aggressively pursued.
“One of the things that makes America great is that we do this,” he told Reuters. “This is open. I’ve been in countries where if you say anything about the military, you end up in handcuffs. Here, we are open about our problems, we let the media in. This has become a negative aspect on us, but it is what is beautiful about this country. When we find something wrong, we are going to get to the bottom of it, we are going to solve it.”
The scandal comes as the military is wrestling with the problem of sexual assault in a military where women are playing increasingly large roles, in key commands, and the Pentagon is discussing dropping the final barriers which restrict women from active combat roles. The Department of Defense Report on Sexual Assault in the Military reports 4.4% of women were the victims of ‘unwanted sexual approaches’ in the 12 months before the study was completed, but several advocacy groups say the numbers are far larger. The winner of the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance film Festival, “The Invisible War” focused on the issue of rape in the military.
Col. Polly Kenney, the Staff Judge Advocate for the Second Air Force and the leader of the prosecution team in the court martials of the suspects in this case, says she has never ‘felt uncomfortable in any environment I’ve been in’ in her 23 years in the Air Force.
“As more and more cases came forward, we became more and more concerned,” she told Reuters. “The command has been taking quite a few actions. We have let the American people know we are not going to hide any of this. It is unfortunate, but we have to deal with it.”
The women who are undergoing training while the spotlight of the scandal shines attention on activities at Lackland, like trainee Sarah Shaw, are confident that will happen.
“If they are guilty of something, they should be punished for it, and I feel like that will take care of it,” she said.
Thurston says the scandal is dragging down the public image of the Air Force and of the U.S. military, at a time when the military can’t afford to let that happen.
“When they look at the military, they want to see the best in America,” he said. “When they see something bad happen, it’s a shame. It’s frustrating. We want America to know that when their son and daughter comes into the Air Force, into the military, they are going to be safe.”