Air Force veterans, congressional leaders appalled by Lackland training scandal

“I’m appalled by the numbers, I really am,” said Colleen Ryan, a retired Air Force colonel who was the 88th Air Base Wing commander at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base from 2006 to 2008. “It’s also unfair to a young recruit who feels they don’t have any option but to go along with it.”

The Air Force has court-martialed five military training instructors for sexual assault or unprofessional conduct with recruits at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. More trainers face pending charges or are under investigation, an Air Force report said. One instructor faced non-judicial punishment for “an unprofessional relationship that did not involve touching,” the report said.

The actions follow dozens of complaints from female recruits that they were improperly approached, sexually harassed or sexually assaulted by male instructors during training, according to an Air Force report. The incidents allegedly occurred between October 2010 and June 2011, the Air Force said.

Ryan, Wright-Patterson’s first female commander, said the service needs to do more to instill strong values in the airmen who are being trained.

“The values and standards that people should be held to just don’t seem to matter like they used to,” said Ryan, whose Air Force career spanned more than two decades. “The biggest thing is people need to be held accountable. … Other people need to know we’re not going to tolerate this, it’s not appropriate behavior. The punishment needs to be swift and it needs to be appropriate and it needs to be visible.”

Ryan said the allegations were indicative of society, too: “Maybe we as a nation need to step back and take a look at where we’re headed.”

Gen. Edward C. Rice Jr., commander of the Air Education and Training Command, has said the 45 recommendations produced by an investigative team led by Air Force Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward will be adopted and embraced. They include raising the percentage of female training instructors and adding more officers to supervise training.

Suzanne Sumner, a former Air Force prosecutor who now practices civilian law in Dayton, said having more female military training instructors should help address the problem in a male instructor-dominated culture.

“The more women that are around, the less likely I would think you would have this type of behavior,” said Sumner, who recalled prosecuting two sexual harassment cases in six years in the Air Force.

State Rep. Connie Pillich, D-Montgomery, a former Air Force officer and recruiter, said the alleged behavior was “extraordinarily disappointing to me as an Air Force veteran.”

“These drill sergeants are charged with training the future warriors of our country and the Air Force above all things (bills) itself as a professional force,” she said. “We look to the military to set strong standards of professionalism and integrity and that trust was breached in a very serious way.”

Joseph DiFalco, a 42-year-old Air Force veteran from Riverside, said in his two decades between active duty and the Ohio Air National Guard, the military frequently reinforced sexual harassment training to warn the ranks of what was inappropriate behavior.

“People are put into a position of trust,” he said. “That’s one of the things you’re taught in basic training is integrity. For them to violate that trust and integrity, to me I find unacceptable.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Centerville, said he met with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Rice about the report’s findings.

Turner said the scandal was another example of how the Defense Department has to be more diligent to ensure perpetrators are punished and personnel at risk of becoming victims are protected.

Still, he said he was impressed with the Air Force’s willingness to make changes..

“I think the report reflects both the severity of the personal impacts of the incidents of sexual assault and the Air Force’s determination to respond and change their rules and procedures,” he said in an interview.

Ohio U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and Rob Portman, a Republican, said in email statements to the Dayton Daily News they would monitor the training program’s progress.

“While overdue, this change is a step in the right direction,” Brown said. “There should be zero tolerance for this type of behavior in the Air Force.”

Added Portman: “Unfortunately, the actions of a few have tainted the image of our airmen who serve with distinction every day. I commend the Air Force for their swift action against those involved and for quickly identifying measures to prevent this from happening.”

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