Segregated Air Force Training: Not the Answer

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Robbin Cresswell / USAF / Getty Images

Airman Basic Amy Ting "low-crawls" on the U.S. Air Force basic military training confidence course February 18, 2002, at Lackland Air Force Base. After escaping from the New York World Trade Center Marriott hotel minutes before it collapsed on September 11, 2001, the young woman decided to turn from actress to airman. After completing six weeks of mental and physical conditioning, she graduated February 22, 2002 from Air Force basic military training.

Air Force leaders are conducting a closed-door briefing on Thursday with the House Armed Services Committee to discuss developments in the criminal investigation into pervasive sexual assaults occurring at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

Concerns about the Air Force’s response to the widespread misconduct at Lackland are growing amid revelations that the number of Military Training Instructors (MTI) involved has increased to 15 and the number of trainee victims has grown to 38.

Congress has called for hearings, and earlier in the week, Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, placed a hold on the nomination of General Mark Walsh to take over as head of the Air Force. The senator stated that the hold will stand until he is satisfied that the Air Force leadership is adequately addressing the situation at Lackland and taking corrective steps to reform their training program.

One of the changes proposed by the head of the Air Force’s training command is to segregate women trainees into separate training units. This idea was one of the first proposed by the Air Force shortly after the scandal broke, but it is a misguided effort. Not only will it fail to stop military sexual assault, but it will also have negative long-term consequences on the effectiveness and readiness of the Air Force.

This idea perpetuates the common myth that military sexual assault only happens to women.

On the contrary, there is plenty of data to show that military sexual assault is not a gender issue.

Pentagon data collected annually on sexual assaults shows that in fiscal year 2010, nearly 400 of the reported 3,192 sexual assaults were attacks on men. The Veterans Administration reports that 40% of the 65,000 veterans being treated for the traumatic effects of sexual assault are men.

The U.S. Marine Corps is currently the only service that segregates women in basic training. Last year, 20 of the 330 sexual assaults in the Marines occurred at their segregated boot camps at Parris Island and San Diego.

Isolating female trainees into separate units will not make sexual assault go away at Lackland (it is interesting to note that although the Marines are the only service to maintain segregated training for enlisted recruits, Marine officer training remains gender integrated.)

The problem at Lackland is not with the population of trainees; it exists with the MTIs, and within the officer leadership. Any effective solution must be directed at those two groups, not at the trainees.

Separating the troops by gender will not address the systematic misuse and abuse of authority by the MTIs, and will do nothing about the extraordinary lack of leadership shown by the officer corps at Lackland.

Continued discussion of trainee segregation by the Air Force leadership is a straw-man argument that shifts focus away from real solutions. Such fixes include providing a climate where trainees are safe to report misconduct, instituting supervisory methods to ensure training rules are strictly followed, swiftly and consistently punishing any misconduct, ensuring MTIs have adequate supervision during afterhours routine, and maintaining strict accountability within the chain of command.

Really want to solve this problem? For every MTI punished, at least two officers should be as well.

The mantra in the military is we train as we fight, so segregating trainees by gender makes for bad training. It does nothing to prepare entry-level troops to function in the current military force structure, and completely ignores the realities of the modern battlefield.

Military women are serving in more and more military occupations, and the presence of women on the battlefield and in combat-ready deployable units is on the rise. All the services agree that the effectiveness and readiness of the military is based on having the best and the brightest people this country can provide serving in its ranks (to its credit, the Air Force has led the way in this respect, opening up 99% of its military occupations to women).

For the Air Force to deal with sexual assaults by resurrecting an archaic training process is not a corrective step. It is a misstep.

Putting the men on one side of the PT field and women on the other is not good leadership; it is geography.

The Air Force’s senior leadership needs to maintain focus on the real problems at Lackland:

— it needs to clean house and assign strong male and female officers who will enforce rules and demand accountability from their subordinates.

— it needs to incentivize and elevate the job of the MTI and bring in teams of highly-qualified and rigorously-screened men and women to serve in those critical roles.

— And the senior leadership must be steadfast in its commitment to provide the very best training that prepares entry-level troops for the realities of military service both off and on the battlefield, for both men and women.

Greg Jacob served in the U.S. Marine infantry in both the enlisted and officer ranks from 1994 to 2004. He is currently the policy director at Service Women’s Action Network and can be reached at