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Blue rope loses stripe for minor offenses

Jun. 17, 2013 - 04:11PM   |  
Senior Airman Dcoridrion Hicks earned the blue rope to signify he was among the service's best military training officers, a feat rare for a senior airman.
Senior Airman Dcoridrion Hicks earned the blue rope to signify he was among the service's best military training officers, a feat rare for a senior airman. (Courtesy of Dcoridrion Hicks)
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Senior Airman Dcoridrion Hicks earned the blue rope to signify he was among the service's best military training officers, a feat rare for a senior airman. (Courtesy of Dcoridrion Hicks)

Senior Airman Dcoridrion Hicks achieved in June 2012 the elite title of master military training instructor, a feat no other MTI of his rank had accomplished in at least a decade.

Senior Airman Dcoridrion Hicks achieved in June 2012 the elite title of master military training instructor, a feat no other MTI of his rank had accomplished in at least a decade.

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Senior Airman Dcoridrion Hicks achieved in June 2012 the elite title of master military training instructor, a feat no other MTI of his rank had accomplished in at least a decade. As a so-called blue rope, Hicks was considered the best of the best in an embattled job few wanted even before basic military training was rocked by a sex scandal.

When Air Force Secretary Michael Donley visited Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in October to talk about a way forward, Hicks was one of a handful of trainers selected to meet with him. The master instructor was promoted to staff sergeant the same month.

Six months later, he was stripped of the rank and likely will be forced to leave the Air Force — a fate shared by MTIs who physically maltrained recruits, had unprofessional relationships with technical trainees and provided alcohol to a minor.

Hicks’ offenses: Using profanity with a basic training flight and staying late in his office that was located inside a female dormitory one night in 2011.

The Air Force said he also conducted a loyalty check during the same period. These unofficial tests, which gauged the loyalty of trainees to their MTIs by trying to get negative information out of them, weren’t against the regulations until more than a year after Hicks made the check.

He was punished in an Article 15 hearing, an administrative proceeding that does not rise to the level of a court-martial. But the loss of a stripe is a career killer. Hicks will reach the high-tenure mark for senior airman next year.

He feels he was caught up in the fervor to hold MTIs accountable in a scandal that has marred the Air Force’s image. The former command chief of Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland and the 37th Training Wing, which oversees basic, said the service overcorrected.

“In my opinion, the punishment does not fit the crime,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. Juan Lewis, the top enlisted leader in Hicks’ chain of command from 2009 to 2012.

“The guys who were accused of sexual assault or allegations involving females — no way can I tolerate that. I agree with that type of [severe] punishment,” Lewis said. But “good people are losing their careers for small infractions. Once the doors are opened, it’s hard to close them again.”

Hicks’ case may not stand alone. The number of military training instructors busted at least one grade in an Article 15 hearing jumped from three in 2011 to nine in 2012, according to Air Education and Training Command.

There were nine in the first five months of 2013 — three times as many as in all of 2011.

A handful of the Article 15 hearings over the past three years were unrelated to misconduct within basic training. For example, an MTI lost a stripe in January for domestic abuse and disorderly conduct.

Other 2013 offenses punished by a rank reduction:

■Adultery and sexual relationship with a technical training student who had graduated from training but had not yet reported to her first duty station.

■Giving a false official statement, wrongful appropriation and dereliction of duty.

■Attempted nonphysical but unprofessional relationships with multiple technical trainees.

■Providing alcohol to a minor, assaulting a basic trainee by hitting the recruit with food and attempted nonphysical but unprofessional relationships with multiple technical trainees.

The AETC data shows commanders were far more likely to suspend a rank reduction handed down in an Article 15 hearing prior to 2012.

In 2011, seven MTIs whose initial penalty included a loss of rank got a reprieve. They included a technical sergeant who made sexual comments to female trainees and started unprofessional relationships with a former basic trainee via Facebook; a staff sergeant who stole money earmarked for basic trainee T-shirts and repeatedly lied about it; and a technical sergeant and senior airman who physically and verbally maltrained recruits.

Only one MTI punished in an Article 15 hearing this year did not lose a stripe: A staff sergeant who had nonphysical but unprofessional relationships with three technical trainees.

The Air Force did not respond to requests for comment about Hicks’ case.

“Everybody’s being held accountable to exactly what the letter of the law states,” BMT spokeswoman Collen McGee said. “Appropriate actions are being taken. Whether that’s more or less than in the past — obviously we are holding everyone accountable.”

'Always nailed a grand slam'

Four noncommissioned officers, including the former 37th Training Wing chief, wrote character letters on Hicks’ behalf. Each of the letters described Hicks as an outstanding MTI who often out-performed higher-ranking instructors. The letter writers also urged leniency; two addressed what they called a lack of leadership within basic training at the time of the offenses.

Only Lewis, who is retired, agreed to have his name used in this story.

An active-duty chief master sergeant wrote it struck him right away that Hicks had great potential as an MTI. “Like his peers and supervisors, he has made mistakes along the way, but he has learned from every one of those mistakes and turned those lessons learned into developmental opportunities with his peers,” the letter said. “It is also my opinion that these alleged infractions are mistakes, and not crimes. Staff Sgt. Hicks has made it his mission to bring the best out of every one of his trainees, and has never engaged in any training activity with malicious intent.”

The letter writer said he could recall no negative critiques during the three years he worked with Hicks. His “pay grade and the lack of leadership” deserved consideration, according to the letter.

A senior master sergeant and instructor supervisor who is still at Lackland described Hicks as “my best MTI [who] quickly became a subject-matter expert as a senior airman. ... As a young airman in age and rank, he easily [outshone] the majority of his peers.”

Lewis said he trusted Hicks to mentor his son. Former recruits bragged about the level of training they received from Hicks, he said.

“I relied on his inspiring leadership to help fire up and spread pride, enthusiasm and passion to Joint Base San Antonio members. He always nailed a grand slam,” the retired chief said.

“He put off studying for promotion to obtain a blue rope,” the elite title of master military training instructor, Lewis said. Only 10 percent of trainers earn this distinction, which no senior airman had attained for at least a decade, he said.

Lewis said the infractions Hicks was accused of surprised and disappointed him.

According to the record of nonjudicial punishment proceedings, Hicks called trainees “dumb asses,” “stupid asses,” “fat asses” and “retarded” and was in an opposite-gender dormitory past lights-out sometime between September and November 2011. He also conducted a loyalty check between May and July 2011.

The record provides no detail on the incident in which he was in an opposite-gender dormitory. Hicks said he was working late in his office one evening and left as soon as one of the trainees reminded him of the time. He never entered female sleeping quarters, he said.

The regulation makes no distinction between areas of the dormitory.

Regulations against loyalty checks did not appear in the 737th Training Group instruction until December.

Hicks said his loyalty check involved asking trainees if another MTI had used profanity. When the trainees said yes, Hicks said he reported that to the trainer.

The tests were supposed to be used to help instructors keep each other in line, he said.

But some MTIs instead used the information gleaned from these tests to keep recruits in line by punishing them for reporting negative information.

“Basic training was a different type of beast then,” Hicks said. Cursing was a gray line; certain words were considered OK and certain words were off limits. “The stuff I did I was trained to do. I guess I thought it was right. Looking back on it, it probably wasn’t.”

Lewis said profanity wasn’t condoned when he was command chief at Lackland, but it was not unheard of.

“In any type of military training environment, it wouldn’t surprise you if a [trainer] were to slip up and use that type of profanity,” he said. “I didn’t know one who lost a stripe as a result of using profanity.”

Lewis said he sometimes joined trainees for physical training to check up on the MTIs.

“I was subject to an MTI using profanity to me” in that scenario, he said. The trainer “didn’t lose a stripe. There was no administrative paperwork. He probably got chewed out by me.”

Uncertain future

Hicks grew up in Louisiana and left for basic training right after graduating from high school in 2006.

“When I got to basic, a lot of people said they wanted to do four years,” he said. “Since I joined, the only thing I wanted to do is make chief.”

Hicks knew he wanted to be a military training instructor before he pinned on his first rank.

He has a photograph of himself trying on an MTI campaign hat during basic training. The picture is the first in a montage representing his rise from grinning recruit to stoic-faced master military training instructor.

Hicks recalled how his MTI asserted himself at the beginning of basic training.

“He didn’t have any personality, and we thought he was a monster. Later, as we got into training, he was more of a normal person. He showed a different side.”

Hicks said he understood it was part of turning civilians into airmen. He wanted to be part of that.

“The day I put on senior airman” — the rank required at the time to become a basic trainer — “I called my MTI,” Hicks said.

Hicks donned the campaign hat three months later. He was consistently ranked among the top in his squadron, including being named blue rope of the year in 2012. In addition to being selected to meet with Donley during his October visit to the base, he was picked to have dinner with the chief master sergeant of the Air Force.

Hicks worked alongside several MTIs who were implicated in the scandal. He was in the same training squadron as ex-Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence for the rape and sexual assault of multiple recruits. Hicks said he was questioned repeatedly by investigators about whether he knew about the misconduct.

He maintains he did not.

“People saw me with them and thought I knew,” he said. “If you’re doing dirt, you’re not going to tell everyone in the entire world you’re doing dirt.

“I don’t know how many times I was questioned by investigators who said, ‘You had to know, you had to know.’ I feel I’m being punished for associating with them.”

Eliminated from the MTI career field, Hicks was still awaiting transfer to another squadron June 14. It will be up to his new leadership to decide whether he can test again for staff sergeant. He isn’t sure what kind of work he’ll do if he has to leave the military.

“I have three kids and a wife who depend on my paycheck right now,” Hicks said.

He said he always pictured himself retiring from the Air Force.

“His whole career was clean as a whistle,” Lewis said. “If things were that strict when I came through the Air Force, I wouldn’t have reached the level I reached.”

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