Yet Another Military Sex Scandal

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Air Force photo / Senior Airman Marleah Miller

Air Force trainees at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas,

Rape allegations. Drill sergeants having sex with multiple trainees. Threats by the drill sergeants to discharge trainees for failing the physical fitness tests if they told anybody what was going on. An old-boy network among the sergeants. A lack of supervision by more senior officers.

That was Aberdeen, 15 years ago, and involved Army drill sergeants. It appears to be happening anew at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

“In the fall of 2011, we discovered to our great disappointment that we had a number of MTIs [military training instructors] who were alleged to have engaged in sexual misconduct with trainees,” General Edward Rice, Jr., commander of Air Education and Training Command, said last Thursday at the Pentagon. The service has identified 31 female trainees alleging such abuse, at the hands of 12 male instructors. Nine of the 12 were members of the 331st Training Squadron.

Rice vowed to root out the abusive trainers, and appointed an Air Force major general – Margaret Woodward, familiar to Time readers for running the air war over Libya last year, and consequently becoming a member of the Time 100 – to oversee the investigation.

Despite Army and Pentagon task forces that have vowed to remediate the problem over the past 20 years — and lots of congressional hearings — this problem persists.

I was intimately involved with the Aberdeen scandal, as an expert witness for the prosecution. I was struck then by the environmental factors which led to a Lord of the Flies atmosphere.

Edgewood Arsenal, the recruit training site, was 11 miles from Aberdeen Proving Grounds. The recruits and their drill sergeants were at Edgewood. The command, chaplains, and medical care were all at Aberdeen.

Recruits at Edgewood Arsenal had to get permission from the same drill sergeants who were abusing them to get to a chaplain or someone else that they could report the abuse. The equal opportunity officer, that they could have reported the rapes to, was part of the network of abusers.

So both cases had multiple abusers and multiple abused, the result of the major power imbalances that define a military hierarchy. I have since seen many cases that have similar dynamics, whether at a remote Coast Guard station, or the Air Force Academy.  The episodes with multiple sexual assaults are usually in remote places, without ability for the abused to report. I do not know all the details of the Lackland scandal, so do not know in how many other ways the situations parallel each other.

But there seems to be a clear pattern of non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in superior positions preying on naïve Soldiers and female Airmen.

There were a host of recommendations after Aberdeen to prevent such situations from happening again. The main ones were to make reporting easier. Put command and chaplains and medical where the trainees are. Do not punish those who report.

There are other patterns to sexual assault in the military. One common scenario is friends who drink too much, have sex, and end up on a “he said, she said” situation. He says the sex was consensual, she says it was rape. In those cases, it is often hard to ascertain what really happened.

Again, consider the environmental factors. My metaphor for these situations is the park table in a dark, secluded area. Soldiers go there to drink beer, and maybe neck a little. Something happens. I recommend putting a light – a bright spotlight, not some wan imitation — over the park table.