An investigation into misconduct by Air Force trainers at a Texas base found that at least 48 female students were victims of sexual assault or other transgressions by their instructors, according to a report released Wednesday that dissected the culture that enabled the worst military sex-abuse scandal in recent history.
The investigation, sparked by a rape allegation at Lackland Air Force Base in June 2011, has ensnared 23 trainers who were found to have engaged in inappropriate behavior ranging from sexual assault to online flirtation with students between October 2010 and June 2011.
The Air Force report said that at least 13 trainees were victims of sexual assault during that period, including six who were abused by the same instructor. Instructors had inappropriate relationships with 26 trainees that involved some form of physical intimacy, and they engaged in improper relationships with nine students that did not include physical contact, according to the investigation.
The report said that sexual misconduct at the San Antonio base, where roughly 500 trainers teach about 35,000 cadets each year, is “as abhorrent as it is rare” but noted that the scope of the problem has nonetheless become of great concern to senior leaders.
“It tears the fabric that holds us together as an Air Force because it destroys our trust, faith and confidence in each other,” the report said.
The Air Force launched the investigation under pressure from lawmakers and advocates for female service members, who contend that the service’s training program allowed instructors to abuse students with impunity.
“There’s something insidious and disturbing about what happened at Lackland,” said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain who is now the executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network. “It’s evidence of widespread assault and widespread misconduct.”
Five instructors at the base have been court-martialed. The rest are awaiting trial or remain under investigation, according to the report.
The Air Force’s review, conducted by Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, found that some past instances of misconduct were not dealt with sternly, creating a sense of impunity.
“These situations contributed to the perception that unprofessional behavior would be tolerated by at least some in authority,” the report said.
Trainers who suspected that their colleagues had acted inappropriately and trainees who witnessed abuse often chose to remain silent, fearing retaliation or that their allegations would not be taken seriously, the report found.
Gen. Edward Rice, the commander of the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command, said Wednesday that the investigation and its recommendations to implement stronger safeguards against abuse are not the end of the service’s efforts.
“This is an ongoing process,” he told reporters at an afternoon news conference at the Pentagon. “The cultural piece is one we need to continue to understand better.”