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SAN ANTONIO — The Air Force handed the reins of basic training to a woman Friday following a sex scandal in which 42 female recruits say they were improperly approached, sexually harassed or raped during their first weeks in uniform.
Col. Deborah Liddick downplayed any significance, however, to a woman taking charge at such a crucial and visible moment for Lackland Air Force Base, where more than 36,000 airmen graduate each year but which has been shaken by widespread allegations of instructor misconduct.
Liddick said "it does not matter" that the Air Force chose a woman and she mostly sidestepped questions about the scandal following a formal change of command ceremony at the Texas base.
"I will ensure the airman under my command maintain the highest standards possible, that the standards are enforced and folks are held accountable," Liddick told reporters.
It's not the first time the Air Force has picked a woman to lead basic training. In fact, Liddick is the third woman to helm the 737th training group in the past decade at Lackland, where every new American airman reports for eight weeks of basic training.
The training environment has come under intensifying scrutiny — from military investigators to Congress — since allegations of sexual harassment and assault involving male instructors began surfacing last year. Four have been convicted on charges ranging from adultery to sexual assault, and a fifth is scheduled to stand trial Monday.
Six instructors have been charged in all, and a dozen more remain under investigation, said Brent Boller, a spokesman for Joint Base San Antonio, which encompasses Lackland.
Boller said some of the 42 female victims identified by investigators simply received text messages from their male instructors, a violation of military policy. Even consensual relationships between instructor and trainee can result in criminal charges.
The most serious allegations involved an instructor sentenced to 20 years in prison in July after being convicted of raping one female recruit and sexually assaulting several others. Earlier this month, another instructor was sentenced to a year in prison and received a dishonorable discharge after pleading guilty to having sex with a trainee.
About one in five Air Force recruits are female, while most instructors are male.
There were few women Friday among the nearly 600 new airmen at Lackland who graduated from basic training after Liddick took command. Among them was airman Jessica Gibson, of Dallas, who said she her male instructors the last two months had her best interests at heart and always were approachable.
But she said a female commander could have a positive influence on the training environment.
"I think that could make a difference, but I think a male commander could also carry out the same instructions," Gibson said. "I think she could add perspective, though."
Anu Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women's Action Network, applauded the choice of a woman. But she said there is a long way to go to fix what she called deeper issues throughout the military that cause problems like those at Lackland.
Among them is the ratio of instructors to recruits, which Bhagwati called "abysmal" at Lackland. The base has about 500 instructors and was operating this summer at about 85 percent of what it would consider a full roster.
Instructors are among the toughest assignments for the Air Force to staff because of the demanding nature of the assignment: a four-year commitment, longer hours than most and time away from friends and family.
"It's a great first step for the Air Force, but it's not enough because (Liddick) can't fix the problem herself," Bhagwati said Friday.
Liddick takes over for Col. Glenn Palmer, who was ousted last month as attention to the scandal intensified. Another commander at Lackland also was relieved during the summer for what military prosecutors described as a lack of confidence.
U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, visited Lackland this month and said he believed the Air Force was being diligent in its investigation. In August, the White House pick for Air Force chief of staff was held up while Congress pressed the service for answers about the scandal.