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The trials of MTIs: Just doing their job? Or abusing their trainees?

Mar. 31, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Staff Sgt. Annamarie Ellis, center, arrives March 24 for her trial on maltraining and maltreating trainees.
Staff Sgt. Annamarie Ellis, center, arrives March 24 for her trial on maltraining and maltreating trainees. (Jerry Lara/San Antonio Express-News)
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Staff Sgt. Annamarie Ellis threatened to beat up recruits and send them home in body bags. She cursed at them, forced them to work out naked in the shower and told one she was going to force a guidon down his urethra.

Now, the former military training instructor has been court-martialed for misconduct at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. A succession of witnesses called by the prosecution detailed these abuses former trainees said they endured under Ellis in 2010 and 2011, according to trial testimony reported by the San Antonio Express-News. In one instance, Ellis instigated a fight between two recruits that left one of them with a black eye, and then told them to lie about how it happened.

Ellis pleaded guilty March 25 to two dozen specifications of maltreatment, maltraining, dereliction of duty, cruelty and obstruction of justice, offenses that carry a maximum penalty of more than 43 years in prison.

She was sentenced March 28 to eight months confinement, reduction to E-1 and a bad conduct discharge.

She is the second ex-instructor in a year whose training methods resulted in criminal charges.

In April 2013, former Tech. Sgt. Bobby Bass was busted one rank and sentenced to six months behind bars after he was convicted of ordering trainees to stand naked together in a crowded shower, rub muscle cream on their genitals and work out in their underwear, among other abuses.

News of Ellis’ case posted online drew an outpouring of comments from readers — some who said she was doing her duty to train personnel for combat, others who condemned her techniques.

Ellis herself said in court she was only trying to establish authority over young trainees she was entrusted with transforming into airmen, the San Antonio newspaper reported.

But basic training spokeswoman Collen McGee said the Air Force has never condoned cruelty.

“We’ve always had the Hollywood stereotype of ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ which has not been the reality in the modern era,” McGee said of the 1987 film that depicted a verbally and physically abusive drill sergeant during the Vietnam War.

One former Army judge advocate said drill sergeants, boot camp instructors and MTIs have historically operated under tight standards because trainees are so vulnerable.

“Every generation tries to say, ‘This isn’t the way it was done when I went through,’” said Greg Rinckey, the former Army JAG who is now in private practice. “But drill instructors and training instructors have always been dealt with pretty harshly. That’s because the people they are training are in a controlled environment. Instructors have complete control over trainees.”

Case for tough training

Few critics would condone forcing trainees to PT nude, but say you can’t properly train a troop for war without some tough measures that today are too quickly labeled as abuse. The Ellis and Bass cases, they argue, represent a degradation of military training.

One Lackland instructor said the prosecution of Ellis and Bass — and the administrative punishment of MTIs accused of minor infractions — are part of a dangerous shift that began amid a sexual misconduct scandal in late 2011. That series of cases has led to the prosecution of more than two dozen former instructors and more than 40 changes to basic training.

“Airmen going through basic training today lack the one thing that is paramount to them learning while they are here: They lack discipline,” said the instructor, who asked not to be named in order to speak openly. “They lack discipline because for the last two years trainees have held complete sway over an [instructor’s] career. ... [Trainees] know for a fact that their word will be taken over an MTI. If an MTI tries to take disciplinary action against a trainee, that trainee only has to drop a critique and the MTI is done for. It’s not a perceived power. It’s the truth, and it happens every single day.”

Data provided to Air Force Times from Air Education and Training Command in mid-2013 showed the number of MTIs losing stripes in Article 15 hearings — a form of administrative punishment — had risen steadily since 2011.

Many of those instructors were found to have engaged in some form of sexual misconduct or attempted unprofessional relationships with former basic trainees. But one case, which was previously reported by Air Force Times, was that of a former standout MTI, Senior Airman Dcoridrion Hicks, who lost a stripe for working late and calling trainees names. He was forced out of the service under date-of-separation rollbacks.

The Lackland instructor who asked not to be named said he, too, will soon be forced out of the Air Force.

He said he was issued a letter of reprimand as a result of a trainee’s negative critique. When he asked to read the critique, he said, his commander told the MTI he couldn’t see it “because he didn’t want me to retaliate against the trainees.”

Instructors have been told not to yell, cuss or use threats, he said. Even the word “hell,” which is in the official Air Force song, is off-limits.

MTIs are also being told not to use words like “freaking” because it means the same thing as its more vulgar counterpart, he said. “The common phrase used here [at Lackland] is that we are not training airmen anymore. We are babysitting them through an eight-week processing time.”

Instructors have long been forbidden to use profanity, McGee said. “It’s always been listed in our policy as not allowed.”

No need for cruelty

Air Force leaders say training remains rigorous — and can be rigorous without resorting to cruelty.

Physical and academic standards haven’t changed, McGee said.

“The object isn’t to tear individuals down but to take individuals and teach them to work as a team,” Col. Mark Camerer, 37th Training Wing commander, said in an email. “They get put in new situations with rules and guidelines they have never faced before and they have to learn to rely on their flight mates — to rely on more than just themselves and their own skills to reach an objective. Basic training is and has always been about building teams and teaching teamwork.”

The proof of the effectiveness of that training is in the 50 graduation parades at Lackland each year, Camerer said.

“Make no mistake, basic training today is rigorous training with tough physical standards and real academic expectations. Being introduced to stressful situations is and always has been a part of training, but cruelty and maltreatment were never okay and they still are not okay,” Camerer said. “The MTIs we have today are the most professional, the best trained, the most dedicated [noncommissioned officers] our Air Force has to offer. Likewise, the airmen they are training, the citizens they are developing into airmen, are among the finest the nation has to offer. When these two meet, the training that is accomplished is hard, it's demanding, it’s rigorous and we are producing a generation of airmen that continues to be the backbone of the world’s greatest Air Force.”

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. James Cody said the service continually evaluates and evolves its approach to training.

“Certainly, basic military training is tough and it needs to be,” Cody said in an email. “Organization and self-discipline are an absolute necessity in our business. The American people and those around the world expect nothing less. Fundamental to this is understanding and acceptance by our airmen of our core values as their own.”

That means treating everyone with dignity and respect, Cody said.

“We’re not here to humiliate people. That’s not the goal of training. Trainees should not be afraid for their physical safety, ever,” McGee said. “MTIs still raise their voices. They’re still going to introduce stress. You can do that same motivation without being abusive. You can still raise your voice and create urgency without losing control. That’s the key, that self-control.”

Instructors are getting help with recognizing personal limits and how to deal with the stress of the job, McGee said.

A four-member team of mental health professionals called the military training consult service began offering regular workshops with titles like “Mindfulness,” “Power and Personality Change,” and “Personality Styles.”

One workshop called “Sports Psychology Skills” teaches MTIs motivating factors during physical training, McGee said.

“We’re making sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure they get extra tools,” she said.

The four-member team also conducts 360-interviews with the peers and subordinate of prospective military training instructors, McGee said. “If you weren’t that great of a supervisor, your employees have an opportunity to provide input. If you were highly motivated and highly motivating, they’re going to be able to express that as well. That’s a piece we did not have before.”

For and against Ellis

Witnesses for the prosecution provided a litany of examples of Ellis’ abuses at basic, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

One former trainee, Kara Marie Piepenbrink, recalled how Ellis threatened to “rip your trachaea out of your throat and throw it on the ground,” according to the newspaper’s account.

Another said she told a female flight leader to get a pair of scissors. When the trainee returned with them, Ellis threatened to use them to cut off a male recruit’s genitals and shove them down his throat.

Ellis and her attorney declined an Air Force Times interview request.

Ellis’ sister, who testified for the defense, described a difficult childhood marked by emotional and physical abuse, the break-up of their family and the murder of their father.

At least one of Ellis’ former trainees offered a different side of the woman now on trial.

Ellis was Senior Airman Tyler Fisher’s MTI in 2009, he told Air Force Times, and her methods were tough but effective.

“When our brother flight would goof off or talk in formation, we stood at attention knowing how to be proper airmen,” Fisher, a reservist at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., said in an email.

Ellis was also dedicated to her trainees, Fisher said. “When I came down with pneumonia, she was the one who came to visit me in the hospital. ... She fought so hard for me to rejoin her flight after I had missed a week of training.”

Fisher credited his former instructor with his success in technical school, where he was awarded distinguished graduate in combat readiness school. “Without her training and dedication to me, I don’t believe I would have had the motivation to accomplish those things.”

Stephen Losey contributed to this report.

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