Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley greets military training instructors as he arrives at the 737th Training Group to meet with basic military training leadership Oct. 23 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. Donley met with MTIs for an hour-long feedback session in which they discussed current challenges and the way ahead. (Rich McFadden / Air Force)
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Staff sergeants may soon find themselves a stripe short for military training instructor duty as the Air Force continues to grapple with an ongoing investigation into sexual misconduct by trainees — most of whom are E-5s.
The Air Force plans to shut E-4s and E-5s out of MTI duty, save for "exceptional E-5 applicants," who will be considered case-by-case, according to an email from the MTI recruitment team at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. That means 42 percent of today's 497 MTIs would be too junior to serve in the job.
An Air Education and Training Command spokeswoman said the rank restriction is one of many changes proposed in a report set to be delivered to lawmakers this month. Gen. Edward Rice, AETC commander, ordered the external review of basic training in June after a sweeping internal investigation led to allegations against 20 trainers. The Air Force has since brought criminal charges ranging from rape to contact with trainees over social media against eight of the accused; one case was resolved in an administrative hearing.
AETC declined to discuss the recommendations outlined in the report until it is reviewed by senior Air Force leadership and members of Congress, probably midmonth.
But the email from the MTI recruiting team, which was posted on the Misawa Air Base professional development center Facebook page, underscored the search for more senior — and seasoned — airmen.
"The 737th Training Group is seeking motivated NCOs with veteran supervisory experience," the email began. "Fast operational tempos, deployments, and daily challenges have primed today's NCO for increased responsibility. … It is essential that qualified NCOs volunteer to serve in these positions."
Ruling out senior airman and staff sergeants will shrink the pool of potential applicants in a job that has long been hard to fill. The three- to four-year commitment pulls airmen out of their career field to work weekends, holidays and 14-hour days, although a recent manning increase from one to two trainers per flight will help reduce those hours, the recruiter email said.
Except for a monthly $450 special duty pay for instructors, the Air Force offers little in the way of incentive.
Staff sergeants currently represent 40 percent of the nearly 500 MTIs, according to data from the Air Force Personnel Center. Technical sergeants account for almost as much. Master sergeants make up about 20 percent of the corps; senior airmen represent less than 2 percent.
Six of the eight trainers charged in the Lackland sex scandal so far are staff sergeants. One is a tech sergeant, and one is a master sergeant.
In a roundtable with reporters last month, the commander of the 2nd Air Force, Maj. Gen. Leonard Patrick, said supervisors and senior NCOs were examining the maturity of MTI recruits to ensure "there are no quality factors that would prohibit them from coming over and doing a strictly professional job."
The 737th Training Group did not respond to email and phone interview requests about the potential effect the grade restriction would have on recruitment.
AETC responded to questions with an email statement: "We have a number of proposed changes under consideration to strengthen Basic Military Training, and have already implemented several others. However, it would be premature to discuss changes under consideration at this time, pending Gen. Rice's report to [Air Force] leadership and Congress. We do look forward to discussing this topic further at an appropriate time."
A number of airmen who commented on the Air Force Times online forum called closing the job to staff sergeants an overreaction that could lead to turning MTI duty into a nonvoluntary assignment.
"This would be equivalent to saying that after the ‘Minot incident' you have to be a lieutenant colonel to be a B-52 pilot," one person wrote, referring to the B-52 that unknowingly flew nuclear weapons across the country in 2007.
"Let me see if I've got this straight," wrote another. "Double the number of requirements for a special duty assignment that is notoriously hard to fill. THEN, make the minimum rank [technical sergeant.] Has anyone (or everyone) noticed there are a lot fewer TSgts than SSgts" in the Air Force?
Wrote one person: "It is a shame how so few have caused so much. What this says to me is that AF leadership thinks senior airmen and staff sergeant MTIs can't do their job, so the thousands they successfully trained mean relatively nothing" to Air Force leadership.
Retired Gen. Bill Boles, who commanded AETC from 1995 to 1997, said the grade restriction is certainly worth considering.
But "it is a zero-sum game. You can only have so many tech sergeants and above. For everyone you put in there, you're leaving another one vacant, whether it be in personnel, on the flight line, in the hospital. I would say … make sure the considerations include what are perceived as direct benefits and what are unintended consequences."
"I don't believe that a person who would be sexually harassing someone as a staff sergeant is going to stop just because they get promoted to tech sergeant. Grade is not the factor. It's maturity, values, what is that person's integrity and standards," Boles said.
Someone will need to determine whether there is a relationship between grade and the incidents of sexual misconduct, he said. "Suppose that a young airman candidate in basic training could be more intimated by a technical sergeant than a staff sergeant or senior airman.
"There is not one thing that will stop it. In my humble opinion, it is an aggregation ... that comes from the leaders. I'm not talking about Gen. Rice or Gen. Patrick," Boles said. "It goes all the way down to the front-line supervisors. You don't have to have commander in your title to be a leader. If it is condoned by the co-workers, if it is condoned by the supervisor and on up the food chain, that makes it easier."