Members of the House Armed Services Committee, from left, Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., Jackie Speier, D-Calif. and Susan Davis, D-Calif., hold a news conference Oct. 2 outside Lackland Air Force Base. The committee members met with personnel at the base in light of an ongoing sex scandal. (Jerry Lara / The San Antonio Express-News via AP)
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AUSTIN, Texas — The Air Force is responding to a sex scandal at its training headquarters by reducing instructors' working hours and cracking down on even those who swear at recruits, a lawmaker said Tuesday.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said she was encouraged by policy changes at Lackland Air Force Base following a tour and meetings with commanders but remained concerned with whether the changes will stick. She said the goal is to reverse a culture of intimidation that left some trainees afraid to speak up.
Speier, who visited the San Antonio base with two other Democrats on the committee, said she was also told the Air Force is more rigorously vetting instructors and installing "drop boxes" on base where recruits can report instructor misconduct without being seen by instructors or filmed by surveillance cameras.
"Part of what they saw was just the intimidation and the beating down (of trainees)," the California congresswoman said. "They so intimidate the trainee that they become totally unable to speak up."
Investigators say more than 40 women at Lackland in the past year had inappropriate contact with their instructors or were sexually harassed or raped. Five instructors have been convicted since July on charges ranging from adultery to sexual assault, and nearly a dozen more have been under investigation.
Last month, the Air Force put a female commander over the training wing where about 36,000 airmen graduate each year.
The appointment of Col. Deborah Liddick was not groundbreaking. Liddick is the Air Force's third woman to take over basic training in the last decade. But her selection came at a crucial and visible moment for a base rocked by allegations of widespread misconduct among male instructors, dating back to last year.
Speier said she's "not big on symbolism" but that she believes the new leadership is taking the scandal seriously.
"We have a cultural chasm that still needs to be closed. That's going to take some time," she said.
Speier toured the Texas base with fellow U.S. Reps. Susan Davis and Loretta Sanchez, also both Democrats from California.
It was the second visit to Lackland by members of the House Armed Services Committee in the past month. The panel's chairman, California Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, toured Lackland and left saying that he believed the Air Force was being diligent in its investigation.