Gen Edward Rice, commander of Air Education and Training Command, answers questions during a press conference at the Air Force Association Annual Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition at National Harbor, Md., on Sept. 16. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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Fifteen months have passed without a sexual misconduct report against a military training instructor, a hopeful sign that the dozens of changes begun in the wake of a sex scandal at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland have worked, Gen. Edward Rice, head of Air Education and Training Command, said this month.
But some trainers say that has come at a high cost to those tasked with turning civilians into airmen.
The MTI corps is no longer all-voluntary. Instructors say they face long hours — 60-, 70- and 80-hour work weeks — mandatory extensions to their tours of duty and automatic denial of all leave requests, except for emergencies. They say they are being punished for minor infractions, such as using words like “hell” and “crap,” and that they are so concerned about staying out of trouble it’s hard to get the job done.
A command-directed investigation Rice ordered in the aftermath of the Lackland scandal revealed instructors with little or no leadership experience wielded excessive power over trainees, often without oversight. In some cases, one MTI was placed in charge of a flight of 60 recruits. The review found basic training needed more instructors, including at least two in charge of every flight. It also recommended shortening the MTI tour and shortening hours. Rice said that will come later. For now, the priority is ensuring there are enough instructors watching over trainees — as well as each other.
“We are working our military training instructors for longer hours versus shorter hours and having less coverage. We are less vulnerable that way,” Rice told reporters Sept. 16.
The other option was to bring in a lot of new instructors at once, the AETC commander said.
“We had some experience with that and quite frankly, it didn’t work out very well,” he said. “We decided to take a more deliberate approach. That means it’s going to take us some time to build up the force.”
That could take 18 to 22 months, Rice said. “Right now, when you look at the numbers, this is the low point in terms of manning. We’ll start to rapidly increase every month. We’re on the way to some place better,” he said.
Rice said most of the more than 40 changes the investigation recommended are already in place at Lackland, where 33 instructors have been accused of offenses ranging from rape to sending sexually explicit messages to trainees on Facebook.
“We’ve taken care of the ones we thought were absolutely critical to make sure we shaped the environment today the way we want it to be shaped,” Rice said.
New rules require instructors and trainees to remain at least an arm’s length apart. Beds have been removed from instructors’ offices and a team keeps a log of all keys signed out. A camera system in the works will have enough server space to save footage for three years. Before, recordings were normally deleted after 20 to 30 days.
Trainees now are told how and when to report a potential sexual assault. Stairwells have anonymous comment boxes. Basic Military Training commander Col. Deborah Liddick reads all feedback left in them. Every two weeks, Rice hosts a roundtable with other AETC leaders to discuss progress, problems and whether current changes are working.
“We’re keeping a very close focus on basic training,” Rice said. “We know this is not the type of problem you fix and then move on. You put initiatives in place, and you’ve got to continue to revisit them every day.”
There are currently only two outstanding cases at basic, said Lackland spokesman Brent Boller. One is in the investigative stage. The other will go to court-martial Oct. 16. Tech. Sgt. John Copenhaver is charged with violating a general order.
“This gives us some sense we are on the right path,” Rice said. “We are certainly by no means declaring victory.”
Base officials are also doing what they can to empower trainees to report abuse against superiors, a difficult feat in an institution that relies so deeply on hierarchy. It’s particularly difficult in a training situation in which instructors deliberately break down trainees to build them up again.
Some MTIs say the reforms have gone too far.
Between 2009 and 2011, no more than three instructors a year lost a stripe in an Article 15 hearing. Nine lost a stripe in 2012. The number is set to grow even higher this year; nine received a rank reduction just in the first five months of 2013.
One of those was former Staff Sgt. Dcoridrion Hicks, who was part of an elite cadre of MTIs known as blue ropes when he was accused of using profanity and staying in his office after hours one night. The office was in the same building as the female dormitory. Hicks was forced to leave the Air Force after the loss of a stripe because of high-tenure rules.
One instructor who asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisal said MTIs who come under investigation aren’t told why. They toil away in an administrative position until they are either charged or cleared, she said.
Another MTI who also asked that his name not be used said he works 12-hour shifts, six days a week, despite a mandate they work no more than 10. Nobody is tracking the hours, he said in an email.
“As [non-commissioned officers], we have to do what we have to do. We can’t let the job go undone.”
The instructor said his leave was canceled and his tour extended by months. Meanwhile, he said, he has seen colleagues punished for minor infractions.
One “got a letter of counseling for saying the word ‘hell.’ It got reported by a trainee,” he wrote. “The job isn’t about training anymore. The name of the game ... is just staying out of trouble nowadays.”■
The Associated Press contributed to this report.