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In the decade before a sexual assault scandal erupted within basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in summer 2011, the Air Force regularly punished trainers for waging unprofessional relationships with young recruits who were under their control.
Similar to the recent allegations against at least 20 military training instructors, charges in the prior cases ranged from contact via social media to sex with recruits the MTI directly supervised during eight weeks of basic training.
While the scale of the ongoing scandal at Lackland is unprecedented, an Air Force list of MTIs accused of misconduct with trainees between 2002 and 2011 provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request shows that trouble within the basic training post is not new. Twenty-four trainers — all but four of whom were staff sergeants — faced courts-martial or administrative hearings during that period, according to the FOIA response.
Most of the cases involved multiple victims. There was at least one case per year except for 2007, when no instructors faced criminal charges or nonjudicial punishment. One year, 2004, saw five staff sergeants accused of unprofessional relationships with trainees. Two years later, four MTIs were found to have engaged in unprofessional relationships with trainees — three of which were sexual.
In fact, a majority of the two dozen accused MTIs had sexual relationships with trainees, according to the Air Force. But most of the cases were handled in Article 15 hearings, which are not open to the public. Ten of the MTIs, who were identified by the service by rank and last name only, stood trial.
Penalties ranged from reduction in rank to senior airman for two staff sergeants who each had two unprofessional relationships with technical trainees, to a bad-conduct discharge, reduction to airman basic and 10 months' confinement for a staff sergeant who had a sexual relationship with a basic trainee and a nonphysical relationship with a second basic trainee.
A quarter of the MTIs accused of misconduct between 2002 and 2011 received bad-conduct discharges. The rest were allowed to remain in the service, including an MTI who kissed two basic trainees and had sex with a third between September 2004 and August 2005. He was downgraded one rank, from staff sergeant to senior airman, and got six months' confinement.
A technical sergeant who made sexual comments to basic trainees and had a nonphysical relationship with a former trainee after she left for technical training got a suspended reduction in rank following a December 2011 Article 15 hearing.
Other cases include:
• A staff sergeant who had sex at a motel with a technical training student. The relationship continued for two weeks and was reported after the trainee became pregnant. He received a bad-conduct discharge and reduction to airman basic.
• A staff sergeant who picked up his former trainee from her dormitory the weekend she graduated from basic in September 2009, took her to his apartment, had sex with her, and returned her to the dorm. The same MTI gave another trainee a map to his apartment; she turned down the invitation. He was reduced to airman basic and ordered to forfeit $867 per month for five months and spend five months behind bars.
• A staff sergeant who had sex with two technical training students in October and November 2006, after the MTI was introduced to the trainees by anther tech student. He was sentenced to two months' confinement, fined and reduced to airman.
• A staff sergeant who had "unprofessional relationships" with three trainees and engaged in "indecent acts" with three trainees between April and July 2008. He got six months behind bars, reduction to airman basic and a bad-conduct discharge.
• A staff sergeant who had a consensual sexual relationship with one basic trainee and watched another one in a shower in July 2008. He was also reduced to airman basic and kicked out of the service.
• A technical sergeant who in September 2009 drove to Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, to meet with a technical trainee who had just graduated from his basic training squadron. The MTI had sex with the woman, dropped her off on base in time for her to meet curfew, picked up a second Sheppard trainee from his squadron, had sex with her, and returned her to base. He was reduced two ranks and given a bad-conduct discharge.
Maj. Gen. Leonard Patrick, commander of the 2nd Air Force that overseas basic training, said those cases at the time appeared isolated — not an indication of a larger problem.
"Supervisors and commanders took every allegation seriously," he said at a media round-table discussion Oct. 11.
The 20 cases uncovered in just more than a year have brought a new understanding to what some lawmakers have described as the worst sex scandal in military history.
"We're almost of a mindset now that just because it's not being reported doesn't mean it's not happening," Patrick said. "In the past, if there were very few cases, we felt like we had it under control."
Much of the sexual misconduct in the two dozen cases between 2002 and 2011 is described as consensual. But advocates of sexual assault victims — and prosecutors in some of the recent cases — argue that a basic trainee cannot consent to advances by a trainer who controls almost every aspect of recruits' life from the moment they arrive at Lackland until they leave for technical training.
Most of the current and prior cases involve airmen who have graduated from basic training, Patrick noted. But in the nine years that preceded the recent scandal, six trainers had sexual relationships with trainees while they were still in basic. They had at least two dozen victims among them.
"These new recruits are young," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, after a visit to Lackland earlier this month. "They're 17, 18, 19 years old. I talked with young girls over lunch. I was struck by the fact they are my daughter's age. My daughter is no more able to handle a situation where someone in command over her tells her to do something and not comply. The take-away is the military — and in this case, the Air Force — has got to stop making excuses."
Patrick said the 2nd Air Force is in the process of creating an environment that makes it nearly impossible for MTIs to prey on recruits during and after basic training.
"We want to put into place policies and procedures that will last over time," he said. "As the perpetrators change their tactics, we can change our tactics of detecting them, as well. We want this to be an enduring solution."