Retired Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Norris, right, of Protect Our Defenders, and retired Command Master Sgt. Cindy McNally, left, of the Service Women's Action Network are shown Jan. 23 before the start of a House Armed Services Committee hearing to review sexual misconduct by basic training instructors at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
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Training instructors who have relationships with recruits, whether consensual or otherwise, don't belong in the military, the Air Force chief of staff told lawmakers during a Jan. 23 hearing into a basic training sex scandal that has ensnared at least 32 trainers at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in less than two years.
"An individual who is serving as a military training instructor who has a relationship like this with a trainee has no place in our Air Force," Gen. Mark Welsh testified before the House Armed Service Committee. "There should be a presumptive sanction under some mechanism to discharge them."
Four of the six MTIs convicted of misconduct in the Lackland scandal so far did not receive punitive discharges as part of their sentences, including a technical sergeant who hid two basic trainees in the backseat of his car, drove them to an off-base house and made sexual advances on one of them. Both recruits were under his command. The MTI, Christopher Smith, served 30 days behind bars and was busted three ranks to airman first class.
Commanders can recommend involuntary administrative separation of the ex-instructors, but such action is not automatic and could take time, said Lt. Col. Mark Hoover, an attorney with the Air Force's training command. The appellate review of the courts-martial must be complete first. And any of the former trainers who have agreed to testify against fellow MTIs would remain in the Air Force at least until those cases are complete.
An enlisted airman who is demoted will have a harder time obtaining promotion, which could ultimately lead to dismissal — although that isn't always the end of an airman's career. There's an appeal process in which the demoting authority can recommend a restoration of an airman's grade.
The Air Force did not provide information about the status of Smith or the three other MTIs who remained in the service at the time of their sentencing. Hoover said privacy laws may prevent the release of that information, because such an ouster would be an administrative action. The ex-MTIs include:
• Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado, who pleaded guilty to having a prohibited relationship with a technical trainee, was sentenced to 90 days in jail, 30 days of hard labor and reduced to airman basic. Vega-Maldonado later admitted to involvement with nine more trainees but faced no additional charges because he had been granted immunity in exchange for testifying against other MTIs facing misconduct charges.
• Staff Sgt. Jason Manko, who admitted to having a sexual relationship with a trainee who was not under his direct command. He received a 45-day jail sentence and reduction to airman first class.
• Staff Sgt. Christopher Jackson, who had sexual relationships with two technical trainees and asked one to lie to investigators, was sentenced to 100 days and reduced two grades.
Even if commanders recommend separation, the ex-instructors could be spared the disadvantages that come along with punitive discharges. They can't be separated under other-than-honorable conditions — the equivalent of a bad-conduct discharge — unless the secretary of the Air Force signs off, Hoover said.
Victim advocacy groups and some lawmakers have expressed outrage that the MTIs were not automatically kicked out of the service as part of their convictions. They also questioned whether a recruit — who is controlled by the trainer in almost every aspect of the recruit's life during basic military training — consents to a sexual relationship out of willingness or fear.
Consent would be no defense
During the hearing, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said she intends to introduce a law forbidding trainers accused of sexual misconduct from using consent as a defense.
"I am introducing a bill today that will basically say no longer can a consensual relationship between a training instructor and a trainee be used as a defense for the acts of the training instructor," Speier told Welsh.
The legislation states any military instructor who engages in a sex act with a recruit during basic training or within 30 days of completing basic training and has authority over the recruit is guilty of sexual assault. "Consent is not a defense for any conduct," it continues.
Welsh said he could not speak to whether a trainee would be unable to consent under any circumstance.
"I don't know that. I can't judge that. And I think that's a little problematic under the law," he said.
But the chief said he supported any effort to remove from the military "someone who has that kind of relationship in an Air Force training program."
Welsh and Gen. Edward Rice, commander of Air Education and Training Command that oversees basic training, spent about two hours Jan. 23 answering lawmakers' questions, which largely centered on efforts to prevent a recurrence of the scandal at Lackland and elsewhere in the Air Force.
Those efforts include dozens of changes to basic training, such as more stringent requirements for instructor duty, shorter tours, more women trainers and greater oversight, as well as a forcewide health and welfare inspection in December that sought to remove offensive materials from the workplace. The Air Force has also begun offering all alleged victims of sexual assault their own attorneys to help navigate the long and complex military justice process.
"The events at Lackland are the most recent example of sexual assaults that have plagued our military for far too long," House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said at the start of the hearing.
In addition to the six MTIs convicted at courts-martial so far, two others received administrative punishment. Nine more have been charged, and another 15 remain under investigation, Rice said at the hearing. The Air Force has identified 59 victims or potential victims, he said.
Guilt doesn't mean discharge
Just as sexual misconduct does not automatically spell the end of a career for an MTI, a sexual assault conviction does not immediately result in a discharge from the military.
Of the 65 "significant Air Force sexual assault convictions" from 2008 to 2012 detailed on the judge advocate general's website, 55 resulted in a punitive discharge. The convicted were allowed to remain in the service in 10 of the cases. They included:
• An airman first class at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., who "approached a random civilian woman while off base, groped her breast and buttocks, and fled in his car."
• A recruiter at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., who drank alcohol with recruits and had sex with a female recruit.
• A technical sergeant at Luke who sexually assaulted his ex-wife while she was at his home to pick up her daughter.
Retired Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Norris, a survivor of military sexual assault who now works as a victim advocate, told the House Armed Services Committee that perpetrators of the crime often get by with a slap on the wrist while victims are ostracized and face retaliation.
"When I joined, I was a 24-year-old small-town girl with an idyllic childhood. Soon I was raped and assaulted by superiors. Two of the predators pled guilty to sexual assault. They were honorably discharged with full benefits," Norris testified.
"The military justice system elevates an individual's discretion over the rule of the law. Too often, commanders' go-to solution is to sweep the problem under the rug and kick the victim out," Norris continued.
Norris called on lawmakers to create a special victims unit that would remove sexual assault reporting from the chain-of-command.
"It's absolutely detrimental to us being able to report safely," she said.