LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas—Every Friday, on a grassy parade ground ringed by vintage warplanes, a freshly minted class of airmen takes the oath of duty and is officially “welcomed into the blue.” Young men and women who arrived at basic training as confused and frightened individuals seven weeks earlier march by the reviewing stand in precise formation. Nowhere is the U.S. military’s unique alchemy—turning unformed young citizens into a warrior fraternity—on clearer display.
After the ceremony, families wander around Lackland in clusters, visiting dorms where every bed and closet is organized according to strict military specification. In the mess hall, the voices of military training instructors rise above the din, shouting at trainees one moment and commending them the next—the instructors serving as mentors, role models, and even parental figures. “I constantly remind my trainers that they are the most influential person in a trainee’s life, and they must embody our core values,” said Master Sgt. Greg Pendleton, commandant of the military training instructors at Lackland. If the MTI’s fail to instill in trainees a willingness to sacrifice self for the good of the unit and submit to unquestioned authority, they will have made the Air Force weaker, not stronger. “That’s why what’s happened here as a result of some bad apples is so disheartening,” Pendleton said. “The training corps is better than that.”
What happened is this: One instructor has been convicted of rape and multiple cases of aggravated sexual assault of female trainees, and 16 other trainers have been charged or are under investigations for crimes ranging from aggravated sexual assault to improper sexual relationships with 42 female trainees.
That places Lackland atop an infamous list of military sexual-abuse scandals, including the Navy’s Tailhook convention in Las Vegas in 1991 (83 female and seven male victims of sexual assault by more than 100 Navy and Marine Corps aviation officers); the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1996 (12 Army officers charged with sexually assaulting female trainees); the Air Force Academy in 2003 (12 percent of female graduates reported having been victims of rape or attempted rape, and 70 percent said they had been sexually harassed); and the Marine Barracks in Washington in recent years, where the documentary The Invisible War interviewed five female Marines who reported having been raped (the Corps investigated and disciplined four of the women after they reported the rapes but punished none of the accused officers).
Two days after seeing The Invisible War, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta directed commanders to elevate all sexual-assault investigations to a reviewing authority headed by a higher-ranking colonel. He also began creating “special-victim units” in each branch. It was a start.
But the most alarming aspect of the Lackland story is its predictability, because the very values Pendleton is trying to inculcate (obedience, self-sacrifice, stoicism in the face of deprivation) are the ones that predators exploit in these scandals. The Defense Department’s own data suggest that, far from representing an isolated incident, Lackland is just the latest outbreak of what Panetta has called a “silent epidemic” of sexual assault in the ranks. Based on the Pentagon’s most recent survey on the issue in 2010, the epidemic affects more than 19,000 victims each year. Meanwhile, according to annual Veterans Affairs Department surveys, 20 percent of female veterans screen positive for “military sexual trauma,” as do 1 percent of male veterans—many of them victims of male-on-male rape. Cumulatively, the data suggest that hundreds of thousands of current and former members of the military have been raped, sexually assaulted, or subjected to “unwanted” sexual contact. In 2010 alone, the VA conducted nearly 700,000 free outpatient counseling sessions to veterans suffering from military sexual trauma.
And the military-justice system has failed to check that epidemic. Persistent, corroborated accounts (by victims and sex-crimes experts) describe a command climate that tends to cast suspicion and blame on victims. Too often, the system treats reports of rape and sexual assault not as heinous crimes to be prosecuted harshly but as unwanted distractions from “good order and discipline” to be dealt with, hastily, at the lowest command level. Frequently, this means simply transferring or demoting suspected perpetrators for “sexual harassment” and referring distraught victims to uniformed mental-health experts who diagnose them with “personality disorders” and help wash them out of the military.
“The whole squadron basically turned on me like I was a leper.” —Jennifer Norris
A decade of conflict has almost certainly exacerbated the scourge. The Army had to relax its recruitment standards to fill the ranks at the height of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an anonymous 2008 survey by the Naval Health Research Center reported that as many as 15 percent of incoming recruits had either committed or attempted rape before entering the military—twice the rate of their civilian cohorts. Counterinsurgency warfare also placed service members in a high-stress/low-oversight environment that was tailor-made for sexual predators: 25 percent of women and 27 percent of men who claimed “unwanted sexual contact” said that the assaults occurred in combat zones. Army investigators received increased reports of combat-theater rapes only after units returned to their home bases, where victims felt safer to report the assaults. (Of more than 130 women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 40 percent died of “noncombat-related” injuries, often gunshots. Some were suicides, but others occurred under suspicious circumstances. A number of the deaths came after the women reported being raped.) “About half the women we see with military sexual trauma also have trauma from combat exposure,” said Deleene Menefee, a psychologist at the VA’s medical center in Houston. “On top of taking fire from the enemy outside the gates, they’ve had to cope with the trauma and fear of being attacked by the enemy from within.”
This article appears in the September 15, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.