Aggressive Action' Follows Sexual Misconduct Charges
By Karen Parrish
WASHINGTON, June 28, 2012 - The Air Force has charged six basic training instructors with a range of alleged sexual misconduct offenses involving trainees and is investigating similar allegations against six other instructors, the senior officer in charge of Air Force training said today.
Gen. Edward Rice Jr., commander of Air Education and Training Command, told Pentagon reporters all of the instructors had worked training newly recruited airmen at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. All of the instructors charged or under investigation are men, and all 31 of the potentially victimized recruits are women, the general said. None of the instructors is still in contact with trainees, he added.
It's important to note, Rice said, that most of the men are still under investigation or in the military trial process, and all are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
"We are leaving no stone unturned. I'm not minimizing this investigation; in fact I'm being as aggressive as I can. And we won't stop ... [until] we've done as thorough a job as we possibly can," he said.
Rice said he was "extremely disappointed ... that this would happen in an environment that we very much want to be a safe and secure environment for any young person who comes in."
The general said the investigation suggests the misconduct dates back to fall of 2009, and allegations surfaced between June and November of 2011. Some allegations involve relations between instructors and trainees that occurred after the trainees had completed basic training and were no longer under the instructors' direct supervision, he noted.
Whether the alleged incidents happened while trainees were in basic training or in the later technical training phase, Rice said, "personal relationships of any kind between trainees and instructors are strictly prohibited by our regulations and our instructions."
Rice said while all unresolved allegations are under thorough legal investigation, he also has appointed Air Force Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward to conduct a parallel review of AETC's response to the charges and to recommend possible further actions.
Woodward is not assigned to the training command, Rice noted. She is the acting director of operational planning, policy and strategy for the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, according to her official biography.
"I felt that it was important to get not just an internal look at this, but also an external look," he said. "I believe it's possible for us not to see things because we've been so close to it over the past year. This is an extra step to see if there's anything that we've missed."
Rice said he has put several measures in place to safeguard and educate trainees. All trainees reporting to Lackland now receive briefings within their first 72 hours on base from the training group commander, a legal representative, a sexual assault coordinator and a chaplain, he said.
The briefings explain their rights and responsibilities to report misconduct, the general said.
Rice added trainees have daily access to a number of comment boxes on the base they can use, either by name or anonymously, to register concerns.
"The training group commander reads every urgent [comment] sheet from a trainee within 24 hours ... and any allegation of sexual misconduct results in immediate action," he said.
Any instructor who is the subject of an allegation is suspended from duty and forbidden contact with trainees pending investigation, Rice added.
Rice said the command took the "nearly unprecedented" step of suspending training for a day to survey all recruits then in training. His staff also has surveyed former trainees who were in basic training during past instances of alleged misconduct, he added.
His staff has worked to contact any trainee who has reported instructor abuse to "offer them the fullest array of support that we can," the general said.
The general noted 98 to 99 percent of all trainees surveyed rated their training experience as positive. Lackland trains about 35,000 new airmen –- 22 percent of whom are women -- every year in an eight-and-a-half-week basic training program that begins a new class weekly, he said. Of 500 training instructors, 11 percent are women, Rice added.
"The vast majority of these [military training instructors] are great Americans who live up to the high standards we demand of those who are entrusted with the critically important and sensitive mission of turning ordinary citizens into airmen," the general said.
The screening process for instructor selection is rigorous, involving a thorough records review and both written and interview-based psychological evaluations, he said. Rice added one of the things he is considering is whether to make that selection process even more rigorous.
"The best line of defense is for the training instructors, in fact, to police themselves," he said. The general noted that all but one of the misconduct allegations came from instructors stepping forward to report information they had overheard from fellow trainers.
The first instructor sexual misconduct case involved Staff Sgt. Luis Walker. A trainee accused Walker in June 2011 of sexually assaulting her, according to Air Force reports.
Walker was relieved of duty and will appear in court July 16 to face a general court-martial on 28 charges, according to Air Force news releases. Charges include rape, adultery, obstruction of justice, attempted aggravated sexual contact, multiple counts of aggravated sexual assault, violating a training group instruction and violating a lawful order regarding unprofessional relationships with trainees.
Since Walker's alleged crimes and misconduct became public, the Air Force has begun investigating 11 other basic military training instructors for alleged violations involving trainees in basic or technical training.
One former instructor, then-Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado, pleaded guilty earlier this month to charges of an improper relationship with a trainee and violation of a no-contact order. He was sentenced to 90 days confinement, forfeiture of $500 pay per month for four months, 30 days hard labor and reduction in rank to airman. In testimony against other accused instructors and after receiving testimonial immunity, Vega-Maldonado admitted to improper sexual conduct with several other women.
Nine of the 12 instructors alleged to have engaged in improper relationships with trainees came from one unit, Rice said: the 331st Training Squadron. The officer who commanded that unit from 2009 to earlier this month was relieved of command, Rice said.
Air Force officials announced special court-martial charges yesterday against two of the instructors, Master Sgt. Jamey Crawford and Tech. Sgt. Christopher Smith. Rice told reporters today both are assigned to the 331st Training Squadron.
Crawford's charges allege he wrongfully conducted a sexual relationship with a trainee, wrongfully provided alcohol to and consumed alcohol with the trainee, and committed adultery.
Smith allegedly wrongfully sought to develop and conduct a personal and intimate relationship with a trainee, wrongfully made sexual advances toward a trainee and wrongfully carried on a personal social relationship with a second trainee. Smith also is charged with obstruction of justice.
Two others instructors, Staff Sgt. Craig LeBlanc and Staff Sgt. Kwinton Estacio, faced an Article 32 hearing June 1. An Article 32 hearing is similar to a preliminary hearing in civilian law. No case can proceed to a general court-martial unless a command first conducts an Article 32 investigation.