One reason commanders might be reluctant to believe victims’ stories is that sexual offenders are far more manipulative and deceitful than most other criminals, not only in grooming their potential victims but also in convincing the entire chain of command that they could not be capable of such a crime. As a career investigator, Strand has compiled a disturbing profile of these uniformed sexual predators. They are such masters of the “hidden persona,” he says, that their colleagues and commanders are often happy to offer positive character testimony to investigators and courts-martial. “We talk to a lot of acquaintances and look at all the potential cases in their past because, frankly, we usually find that sexual offenders have more than one victim,” Strand says. “They are often serial offenders who have assaulted other adults, children, even animals.”
THE LACKLAND PREDATOR
Warning bells went off almost as soon as Staff Sgt. Luis Walker arrived in the summer of 2010 as a military training instructor at Lackland, which graduates 35,000 airmen each year. Despite completing the 16-week MTI course and passing a behavioral screening exam, by that fall Walker was already engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a young trainee on Facebook, something explicitly forbidden by Air Force regulations. Walker was given a letter of reprimand and removed from the squadron, but for only half the recommended 60-day period. He was not recertified, as regulations require, before being put in charge of trainees again.
In the late spring and early summer of 2011, two female trainees related Walker’s sexual misconduct to another MTI and a fellow trainee; they alerted Lackland officers. Eventually, a seven-person military jury heard testimony from 10 female victims. They described how Walker would lure trainees into empty offices or dormitories and, according to four victims, use his position of authority to intimidate them into sex. (To protect their identities, victims are not named.) One victim testified that Walker forced himself on her even as she pleaded with him to stop. None of the victims initially reported the assaults for fear of forfeiting their Air Force careers. In July, Walker was convicted of rape, aggravated sexual assault, and aggravated sexual contact; he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
By the time of Walker’s conviction, however, Lackland investigators had uncovered evidence of sexual misconduct by 17 instructors involving 42 female trainees. Charges range from rape and unwanted advances to inappropriate sexual relations and social-media contact. In one early case that investigators fear may be a harbinger, Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado pleaded guilty to a single inappropriate relationship and, after receiving 90 days confinement and agreeing to testify against his fellow instructors, was granted immunity from further prosecution. Vega-Maldonado then admitted to having nine other inappropriate sexual relationships with trainees.
This should not be possible. MTIs are banned from being in a room alone with a trainee. They can’t even be with multiple trainees behind closed doors. At least two MTIs are supposed to serve on night duty so that nobody has sole responsibility. Nevertheless, officials do not always follow policy. “We are still a microcosm of America,” says Lt. Col. Jeffrey Greenwood, a training squadron commander at Lackland. “Bad stuff happens outside these gates, and some of that bad stuff gets inside the gates in the form of people who don’t believe the rules apply to them.”
“I constantly remind my trainers that they are the most influential person in a trainee’s life and they must embody our core values. That’s why what’s happened here ... is so disheartening.” —Master Sgt. Greg Pendleton, a military training instructor at Lackland
The Air Force has now launched four investigations of Lackland, and investigators are reaching out to nearly 1,000 trainees who passed through the base. Col. Glenn Palmer, the top commander of basic training at Lackland, and Col. Eric Axelbank, commander of the training wing involved, have both been relieved of duty and transferred, as have the commander and senior noncommissioned officer of the squadron in which nine of the accused instructors served. The Air Force is also studying whether personnel cuts reduced oversight of the noncommissioned officer corps at the base, and why the divorce rate for trainers is more than double the Air Force average. Commanders created a 24-hour hotline where victims can leave anonymous tips about training officers’ misbehavior.
For victims’ advocates, the familiar feel of Lackland—women of younger age and lower rank assaulted by older men with more authority in their chain of command—is evidence that the chain cannot be trusted to deal with sexual assault. Local commanders with little relevant expertise are given broad authority to dispose of cases however they see fit. They can decide how and whether to prosecute or when to accept a lesser plea.