The officers and staff at Lackland Air Force Base bent over backwards to make the assembled media feel welcome.
“Please, may I get you some water? The air-conditioned bus is right over there. Be sure to have lunch with our trainees!”
The welcome was lovely, but on this particular Friday, it came at a time of negative scrutiny for the hub of the Air Force’s training program.
Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, a Military Training Instructor (MTI) at Lackland, is now being court-martialled on 28 counts of rape, harassment and abuse. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Walker’s case is the worst of what the Air Force says it knows about sexual abuse problems at Lackland. At least thirty-one women have accused MTI’s of abusing them during basic training. Eleven MTI’s are under investigation. Authorities say the earliest case dates to 2009, but that could change, as they interview more female airmen about their experiences in recent years.
This is not the sort of news the US military wants right now. With the end of the ban on gay and lesbian troops, and with an active discussion about whether to let women serve in combat, senior commanders want to keep the public’s focus on how they are resolving their duty to fight with the need to reflect the changing American population.
Reports of sexual abuse raise many questions about the climate within the military – is it indeed a place where women can be treated fairly? Are officers and non-commissioned officers living up to their pledge to act with integrity? Should families feel comfortable with their loved ones, fresh out of secondary school or college, entering this environment?
Colonel Eric Axelbank, head of the 37th Training Wing, insists the families of these military volunteers can and should relax.
Female trainees we met during a group meeting called “Airman Time” said once the news broke about the scandal, they quickly got their mobile phones back – so they could call their parents.
But after spending a few hours with these young women, all of a generation not known for its rectitude, I was convinced that if sexual harassment and abuse are to be driven out of the military, it will be largely because these young women demand it.
“I feel with the Air Force, the way they work, they will weed out the bad people so we are able to tell people about this,” Trainee Melissa Sanders said.
“I don’t fear repercussions because again, it should be integrity first.”
Let’s hope for these young troops’ sake that integrity will be the priority going forward.