Debunking the Mythical Narrative of the Lackland Scandal

In 2011, allegations of trainee sexual abuse by a Lackland Military Training Instructor (MTI) became public. Those initial allegations spawned several investigative spurs that revealed additional concerning information. Taken together, the published accusations gestured toward a pattern of broad-based sexual misconduct among the MTI population, fueling previously-held perceptions in Congress and among certain advocacy groups that the Air Force was unable and/or unwilling to effectively address the issue of sexual assault in the ranks.

Soon, goaded by a frenzied and click-hungry media hyperbolically labeling the situation “the worst sex scandal in Air Force history,” the service went into a perceptual scramble to preserve its image and authority. In doing so, it confirmed the media narrative of what had occurred at Lackland. What followed was a command investigation led by a general officer, along with hearings in Congress and a massive media effort, all designed to show commitment to reducing sexual violence among MTIs.

There was just one problem: the scandal wasn’t about sexual violence.

Ultimately, 35 MTIs would face courts-martial and many others would be punished non-judicially. Of these, only six were charged with rape or sexual assault, and half of these were acquitted. Of the three ultimately convicted on charges of sexual violence, two have had their convictions and sentences set aside on appeal, leaving just one MTI who can be confidently labelled a rapist. That MTI is SSgt. Luis Walker, the very first trainer at Lackland to be accused — the one whose case got the scandal started. He was convicted and later took his own life in prison.

What the scandal primarily exposed was consensual sex considered inappropriate under Air Education and Training Command policy — for example, MTIs having sex with airmen who had graduated from basic training but were still in technical school. There were other cases where MTIs were found culpable for unprofessional relationships of a non-sexual nature. A few cases uncovered trainee maltreatment that had nothing to do with sex or relationships at all — just MTIs on power trips humiliating or hazing trainees.

This graphic from the Never Leave an Airman Behind facebook page demonstrates just how little the Lackland scandal had to do with sexual assault.

Ultimately, a “sex scandal” implicating less than 3 percent of the MTI population produced a single sexual assault conviction able to stand scrutiny under judicial review. The remainder of what was exposed, while serious in some cases, does not occupy the same shelf of seriousness as the salacious charges that got the scandal started. The actual content of the scandal differed wholly from its mythical narrative. It wasn’t about sexual assault. It was about a general degradation of good order and discipline among MTIs, setting the conditions for abuses of various sorts that can be expected when the wrong people are given too much authority with too little training and insufficient oversight.

Most things are about resources, and this is another example. From well before the first stirrings of trouble in 2008, Lackland had too few MTIs, resulting in each having enlarged individual authority. It also had too few officers leading its training process, resulting in each commander being responsible for more than could be effectively monitored.

These conditions were not driven by evil in the hearts of men or by the infiltration of the MTI career field by a teeming horde of sexual predators. They were driven by Air Force policy decisions that reduced manning, under-emphasized the role officer leadership at Lackland, and watered down the MTI selection process. These actions, and not rampant sexual deviance, allowed the Lackland scandal to occur. This was a leadership scandal, as underscored by this excerpt from the investigation conducted by Maj. Gen. Maggie Woodward:

Interestingly, Woodward’s full report is no longer available on the Air Force’s website, likely because her key recommendations were not faithfully implemented. The Air Force’s idea of improving leadership at Lackland was to fire a couple of mid-level commanders and replace them with compliant and politically astute pawns who went on to turn the base into a stew of toxic leadership. No one above wing level — no one who made the resource decisions that led to the loss of discipline at Lackland — has ever been disciplined.

Rather than genuinely address the issues, the Air Force took the media and Congressional bait, turning the scandal into one about sexual predation and the service’s full-throttle push to squash it by crushing offenders (while blanketing the rest of the service with endless preachy messaging about sexual behavior as clumsy as it was mistaken). This push, and the political impetus behind it, conflated issues of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and lesser inappropriateness into one huge mass. Inside this ball of evil were the villains, and outside, the victims.

This gross oversimplification made victims out of grown adult women who acted willingly and often aggressively according to their own sexual agency. It made villains out of men and women whose infraction was having sex with someone declared inappropriate by policy, which is not in the same universe as sexual violence. Pretending it is does a grave disservice to victims who have actually suffered the trauma of sexual assault. It also tramples on the dignity of hard-working and well-meaning airmen who deserve to have their mistakes properly weighed according to actual severity.

The Air Force’s rhetorical strategy desperately needed all of the Lackland conduct to amount to sexual violence so it could be seen addressing an issue that stood as a threat to the institution’s authority (and budget).

But for all its sound and fury, Lackland signified nothing new. For as long as basic training has existed, the temptation for abuse of power has existed and required safeguards. The real villains are the senior commanders who allowed the Air Force to forget this and the senior bureaucrats who pretended a prosecutorial show of force marked by a number of conspicuous injustices was an actual solution. They have proven unintentionally that the Air Force is too addicted to political favor and image management to operate an objective and fair justice system.

The most important footnote to this “scandal that never was” is yet to come. Keep your eyes open for a tsunami wave of appellate reversals of Air Force sex cases in the coming weeks. See our recent piece on MSgt. Mike Silva for a preview of what these cases will look like legally.

Lackland Rape Case Tossed on Appeal, Wrongly Convicted SNCO to Walk Free

More reversals like Silva will expose that prosecutors have habitually surmounted weak evidence by hoodwinking juries into seeing defendants as inherently evil people. So much so that a senior appellate court was moved to step in and establish a new rule of law that will force the Air Force to either re-try or release many of those whose pelts were delivered as prizes in Congressional hearings.

When this transpires, it’ll be interesting to see whether the service accepts culpability for its institutional missteps, holding leaders accountable and seeking reform … or whether it once again embraces self-delusion and public dishonesty in a gambit to protect its interests.

See also this excellent post, which details each of the 35 court convictions in the Lackland leadership scandal.


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