U.S. rep calls for Lackland hearings
By Sig Christenson
Updated 11:44 p.m., Sunday, June 17, 2012
A San Francisco Bay Area congresswoman was expected to send a letter today to the House Armed Services Committee, asking for hearings on a growing sex scandal involving Air Force instructors and trainees in San Antonio.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., cited instances of instructor misconduct at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland that have triggered charges against four staff sergeants on the installation, home of Air Force basic training.
“What is happening at Lackland is systemic and warrants this committee's immediate attention,” a draft of the letter states. “In light of the alarming trend of sexual assault cases documented in the military as a whole, it is imperative that Congress hold the military accountable and truly implement a zero-tolerance policy in response to this problem.”
The Air Force has said more instructors are being investigated and revealed in a federal Freedom of Information Act request that 35 Lackland trainers have been yanked from their jobs for various reasons in the past 11 months. The number of those removed because of sexual conduct allegations isn't known; Air Force lawyers only have said it is fewer than half.
One former Lackland basic training instructor, Airman Peter Vega-Maldonado, told a recent evidentiary hearing that as a staff sergeant he had illicit contact with 10 women — not just one, as he pleaded guilty to in a deal that spared him from a bad-conduct discharge. The Air Force hasn't said what Maldonado did with the trainees or if they were in the all-female unit he led until commanders reassigned him three weeks into its training cycle.
“Vega will be forced to leave the Air Force but without a bad-conduct discharge,” Speier, a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said on the House floor. “Imagine that. Without a bad-conduct discharge.
“If the military is as vigilant as they say they are, how could such a repetitive, widespread and sickening behavior still be occurring?” she asked. “What is being uncovered at Lackland flies in the face of what we are being told by our military.”
The Air Force is saying little about the case, but Lackland spokeswoman Collen McGee conceded that “there is a problem” at the base and called it “a horrible situation,” one that commanders were trying to correct. Few details of what the Air Force was doing have been made public since Vega stunned a Lackland courtroom while testifying against a fellow instructor he claimed to befriend.
So far, the Air Force has charged Staff Sgts. Luis A. Walker, Kwinton Estacio and Craig LeBlanc with sexual misconduct with women in basic and technical training. LeBlanc is accused of being involved with two women, while Estacio is charged with seeing one. Walker faces a July 16 trial on charges of illicit contact with 10 women, including intercourse with four of them and raping one. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Other military training instructors, called MTIs, also are under investigation, though no one is saying how many. In the meantime, Gen. Edward Rice Jr., head of the Air Education and Training Command, told the San Antonio Express-News he has ordered a review of basic training.
But Speier, a vocal critic of the military's handling of sexual assault cases and Pentagon efforts to prosecute offenders, said the incidents at Lackland underscore the military's inability to deal with the problem.
Pointing to MTI assertions that they were involved in consensual relationships, she echoed sexual assault victims who say the military legal system often fails.
“It comes down to the words of the accused and the accuser: the instructor against the trainee,” Speier said in her floor speech. “In the military, this usually means the perpetrator gets off or receives a disproportionately small punishment, and the victim endures an arduous and humiliating legal process with no sense of justice at the end.”
Speier's Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, which she introduced in November, would take the reporting, investigation and victim care of sexual assaults away from the chain of command. An independent office consisting of civilian and military experts would hear those cases instead, with a director deciding when to prosecute.
The bill is called the STOP Act.
“The age-old problem in the military is that nine out of 10 women (Airman) Vega has now admitted to committing sexual misconduct with have not come forward because they know that the odds of getting justice is slight, and the odds of their careers being finished is great,” Speier said.
“What's happening at Lackland Air Force Base should and needs to be a wake-up call.”