At An Air Force Base, Allegations Of Sexual Assault | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

At An Air Force Base, Allegations Of Sexual Assault

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Opening statements will be made Tuesday in the trial of a former Air Force instructor accused of rape and sexual assault of the young trainees in his care.

Staff Sgt. Luis Walker faces 28 charges and could be sentenced to life in prison. A total of 12 Air Force instructors are under investigation for allegedly abusing recruits at Lackland Air Force Base, the main Air Force training center.

If what prosecutors say about Walker is true, he made life hell for 10 new members of the U.S. Air Force. As a basic military instructor at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Walker was supposed to turn green young recruits into airmen. Instead, prosecutors will argue, he used his brief tenure to assault female recruits.

Eleven other Air Force instructors also face charges or investigations in what appears to be a pattern of abuse at Lackland between 2009 and 2011. All Air Force recruits come through Lackland to start their careers, so the Air Force has been shaken by the scandal and by the possibility that there are more cases out there.

Gen. Edward Rice Jr., commander of the Air Education and Training Command, said recently that the problem, while serious, is limited.

"It is not an issue of an endemic problem throughout basic military training," he said. "It is more localized, and we are doing a very intensive investigation on that squadron to find out what exactly happened and why," he said.

The Air Force is convinced that multiple inquiries and vigorous prosecution of those accused will limit the damage. It has also strengthened its training on sexual assault. Air Force attorney Col. Polly Kenny says this message is being repeated loudly and clearly.

"We repeatedly talk to the trainees about legal orders vs. illegal orders," she says. "There is no time where a trainer should be touching a trainee under our rules."

But some members of Congress say it's naive to urge victims to report abuse, especially new recruits. Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California points to the fact that only one victim at Lackland felt safe to come forward on her own; the other charges resulted from instructors identifying misbehavior.

"The fact that they have identified in the investigation 31 victims, but only one has come forward, should tell us all we need to know," she says. "It is not safe in the military to report a crime of rape."

Speier agrees with advocacy groups that say relying on the chain of command won't work. Right now, local commanders can decide whether investigations go forward or are quashed. Speier says charges need to be handled by people with experience in going after rape, which can be tough to prosecute. She has introduced legislation that would set up an independent authority in the military for sexual assault.

"An individual would be able to file a complaint with the special victims unit ... that would be staffed with experts in investigation and prosecution, both military and civilian," she says. "They would make the decision whether or not to pursue a court-martial."

The military has not been open to this idea, and has resisted anything that undercuts the responsibility of local commands to take care of their own problems. So, the trials at Lackland may prove to be a test of the military's commitment to zero tolerance for sexual misconduct.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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