At Least 31 Victims Identified in Growing Air Force Sex Scandal
The US Air Force says it has identified at least 31 victims in a widening sex scandal involving the rape, sexual assault and predation of female trainees by male instructors at a Texas base.
CNN reports that the Air Force is expanding its investigation of sexual abuse of female trainees at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and “actively seeking” any additional victims, according to commander of Air Force training Gen. Edward Rice.
“We are taking a comprehensive look not only at the cases that we know, but trying to do the best we can to assess whether or not there are other cases out there,” the general said at a Pentagon press conference on Thursday.
Rice said the Air Force has taken “the unprecedented step” of closing all recruit training for 24 hours in order to hand out a written survey to basic trainees at Lackland in order to ascertain the full scope of the crisis.
One trainer, Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado, has already pleaded guilty to having an improper relationship with a trainee and has been sentenced to 90 days in prison, 30 days hard labor and a rank and pay cut. Vega-Maldonado, who has admitted to having improper sexual relationships with 10 trainees, has provided testimony against a pair of other trainers who have been charged with sexual offenses against trainees.
The Air Force has already charged two more instructors. Earlier this week, it charged Master Sgt. Jamey Crawford of providing alcohol to a trainee who he then had sex with. Sgt. Christopher Smith is charged with seeking to conduct an intimate relationship with a trainee, making sexual advanced toward her and having a personal social relationship with another.
Another instructor, Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, is facing a court-martial on 28 charges, including rape, adultery and aggravated sexual assault. He is scheduled to appear before a military court on July 16.
Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps officer, told CNN that the problem of sexual predation by instructors is not exclusive to the Air Force.
“The basic training environment in particular is a target-rich environment for sexual predators,” she said. “You cannot do anything without requesting permission from your drill instructor. You cannot use the bathroom, you cannot move from left to right, you are literally in many cases a robot waiting for permission to take a step. And if you have that relationship which is based on fear and intimidation … if that’s the person you’re asking help from, it becomes a very bizarre scenario.”
“You are subject to every single order that comes out of that instructor’s mouth. If you’re not going to tell him, who are you supposed to tell? And how are you supposed to get out of that unit to seek help?”
Female recruits and trainees are sexually abused in every branch of the US armed forces. Misogyny runs rampant; sexual harassment is a daily fact of life. Worse, sexual assaults have been increasing year after year. There were 3,191 reported cases in 2011 alone and the Pentagon admits that around 80% of military rapes are never reported. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says he believes the real number is closer to 19,000.
Recruits and trainees are especially vulnerable. Marine Corps recruiters have raped drunken underage girls, telling them they had to have sex if they wanted to become Marines. At the prestigious US Air Force Academy in Colorado, one in eight female cadets there were victims of rape or attempted rape in 2003; seven out of ten reported sexual harassment. Many were punished for reporting rapes, while the perpetrators usually got off scot-free.
The Air Force, aping the standard military response when faced with atrocities, initially blamed the rapes on “a few bad apples.” Once the sheer number of victims was recognized, the Academy took corrective measures and the number of sexual crimes declined. That doesn’t mean that the problem has gone away– this January came news that three Academy cadets were charged in separate sexual assaults.
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