Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr., Commander, Air Education and Training Command, is seen during an interview with Air Force Times on Nov. 16. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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The Air Force's once-highest ranking judge advocate general. A retired Army four-star-turned-CIA director. The top commander in Afghanistan. An Aviano Air Base inspector general and more than two dozen military training instructors, most of them staff sergeants who turned thousands of civilians into airmen.
Celebrated or relatively obscure, they are suspected of a range of misconduct for which the underlying thread is the corrosive influence of absolute authority.
"The corruptive elements of power tend to increase over time. The longer you've had it, the more you're susceptible to it; the more you start to believe the rules don't apply to you," said Gen. Edward Rice, head of Air Education and Training Command.
Rice spoke to Air Force Times two days after the Friday release of an independent investigation into basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, where in just more than a year, accusations of sexual misconduct against 25 instructors have surfaced.
The review of BMT sought to understand how and why a sex scandal that has been described by some lawmakers and victim advocates as the worst in the service's history happened — and how to prevent a recurrence, at least to the same extent. Its release came amid a series of headline-grabbing allegations of misconduct at the highest ranks: Marine Corps Gen. John Allen was under investigation for allegedly exchanging flirtatious emails. Less than a week earlier, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus resigned as head of the CIA after an extramarital affair with his biographer became public.
The high-profile misconduct cases are part of a five-year spike in complaints against senior leaders that prompted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to order the Pentagon to review how to reverse the trend and deliver the findings to the White House on Dec. 1.
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy sent a letter to airmen Nov. 15 saying that the service expects more than 700 cases of sexual assault this year — 100 more than in 2011.
"There is only one way to say this … there is no place for sexual assault in our Air Force," the letter began. "When it comes to combating this challenge, every airman is either part of the solution or part of the problem."
Rice, speaking about a culture within Air Force basic training that was somewhat accepting of certain misconduct, said abuses of power are not isolated.
"We see that not just in the Air Force or Air Education and Training Command; it's the way this works on people," he said. "Whenever I meet with new commanders, one of the first discussions we have is: Many of you are now going to have authorities, responsibilities, power that you've never had before, and I know everybody sitting here on Day One thinks it's never going to be them, but somebody in this room — or probably somebodies in this room — is going to fall."
"This is very tough to deal with over time. It's why they have to have support mechanisms; it's why they have to depend on their fellow commanders; it's why they have to depend on their spouses to help to see when they are starting to change and be impacted by this," the general continued. "It's the same thing for people who have these [MTI] positions: We have to support them over time to help them continue to have the resiliency to not be influenced by this element of the corruptive pieces of power."
Insulated world at BMT
In a report released alongside the investigative findings, the head of AETC wrote that safeguards meant to protect young basic trainees and prevent MTI abuses weakened over time. Leadership overlooked those weaknesses and MTIs failed to properly police themselves.
Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, who led the review of training units, painted a picture of the insulated world of basic training — a place where instructors with little or no leadership experience controlled every aspect of recruits' lives. Operations officers were removed from training squadrons between 2007 and 2009, reducing "the level and intensity of supervision," the report stated.
MTI positions were also not fully staffed, leaving one trainer to push a flight of 50 or 60 recruits. The trainers worked 16-hour days, six days a week, and in some cases refused to take vacations for fear of appearing weak or piling duties onto colleagues.
MTIs shut out squadron commanders from the day-to-day workings of basic training and the squadron commanders did not challenge it, Woodward said in a media briefing Nov. 14.
Amid long days with little oversight, instructors grew captivated by their power. Emboldened by disengaged supervisors and colleagues who looked the other way, some MTIs led by fear rather than respect; used abusive language; punished recruits with excessive exercise and engaged in forbidden relationships.
One instructor, ex-Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, raped and sexually assaulted at least half a dozen recruits, crimes for which he is now serving a 20-year prison sentence. At least two other MTIs are accused of sexually assaulting trainees.
Some were calculating and methodical, identifying victims in the first minutes of basic training, appointing them to leadership positions within the flight and singling them out for special treatment.
Trainers called to task for misconduct often escaped serious punishment. Woodward's report noted two "egregious" cases:
• In April 2009, an MTI went into the female flight dorms in the middle of the night and harassed and flirted with a trainee — kissing her and hugging her so tightly she could feel his erection. Four months later, the trainer's supervisor issued him a letter of reprimand and delayed his promotion to master sergeant 60 days. The MTI then became an instructor supervisor.
• In January 2011, an MTI found to have become involved with a technical training student through social media, photos, calls and texts got a letter of reprimand and had to take a class on professional and unprofessional relationships.
BMT had no clear policies to address or report instructor misconduct, with one trainer pushing flights for two weeks after his supervisor learned of allegations of inappropriate behavior.
Trainers thought they could get away with it. Trainees thought no one cared.
"The combination of reporting barriers and poor detection methods assisted in creating a culture where misconduct appeared to be tolerated by leadership. This also created an environment where trainees were fearful of reporting," Woodward's review said.
Within this culture, the scandal emerged.
High-ranking officers have not gone unscathed. Two commanders — the head of basic military training and the head of a training squadron where much of the misconduct is alleged to have occurred were relieved of duty this summer. Rice said six others are facing administrative action, but has declined to name them or provide details.
Changing the culture
AETC — and perhaps the military as a whole — now faces the enormous job of mending a culture where sex and power too often collide.
"Whenever you have a group of people that associate, they have a culture," Rice said.
"In the military, it tends to happen to be a 24/7/365 expectation of how we behave around each other. So changing that is absolutely a challenge."
He said a key to that is to break what can become a warped sense of loyalty to fellow airmen, even if that means not speaking up when witnessing others in one's unit act illegally or immorally.
"An analogy, not a perfect one, is: Most people would find it at least challenging — something that they would think about — to turn in a member of the family even though they knew they broke the law. This becomes your family in a sense. Maybe not the same strong ties that you have with a blood relative family, but this is your family.
"It's going to take time. It's going to take people who are part of that culture to own the culture, to understand that they have to make these tough choices every day, to live up to our core values of service, integrity and excellence — and hold everybody else accountable, as well."
Zero tolerance, not zero cases
The same week Woodward's report came out the number of instructors accused of misconduct grew again, from 24 to 25. The most recent tally of possible victims stood at 49.
Rice said he would not be surprised to see that number climb higher. "I'm absolutely confident that we can make a difference. But I also understand the nature of this challenge," he said.
"I have zero percent confidence that we've got the 100 percent solution today and no one should, hopefully, think that that's what we're saying here today," he said.
One day earlier, a recruit who graduated from basic training this summer as outraged lawmakers called for congressional hearings and the cases exploded in the media, testified at an Article 32 hearing that her MTI began inappropriately touching her after offering extra physical training help.
The trainer, Staff Sgt. Donald Davis, held frequent closed-door meetings with the woman, she testified, according to the San Antonio Express-News. One ended in a long hug. During others, she testified, Davis took her hip, waist and chest measurements, once telling her she could lower her pants for a better reading.
When the woman told Davis she felt uncomfortable, he never called her back, began shouting at her for mistakes and threatened to eject her from basic training, she testified. When she reported Davis to another staff sergeant, the woman said she was removed from her unit in retaliation. She testified two supervisors in her chain of command warned her not to talk about it, the newspaper reported. The case's investigating officer will decide whether to send the case to court-martial.
Rules prohibit Rice from talking about cases still in the court system but he said all airmen must take responsibility for their conduct and that of others.
"If you're not having to fight for those issues every day, then I would say you're not really living our core values," he said. "I have to do it, I mean I have lots of times every day where I have to make sure I'm doing the right thing, that this isn't about me and what's good for me, it's about what's good for the Air Force. And so, this is not easy stuff."
Staff writer email@example.com?subject=Question from AirForceTimes.com reader">Jeff Schogol contributed to this story.