Military Under Pressure To Crack Down On Sex Abuse

Court martial began Monday for Sergeant Luis Walker. He is accused of rape, aggravated sexual assault and other charges as part of an investigation into sexual abuse at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Walker is one of 12 instructors accused of abusing young female recruits. The scandal is calling into question the military's "zero tolerance" policy on sexual assault. Larry Abramson talks to Robert Siegel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In San Antonio today, the beginning of a court martial that could have big implications for the Air Force and for the military as a whole. Staff sergeant Luis Walker stands accused to 28 counts, including rape and sexual assault while he was a basic military instructor. That's the Air Force equivalent of a drill sergeant.

The trial comes as the Pentagon is facing pressure to crack down on sexual assault and abuse. Joining us now is NPR's Larry Abramson at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. And, Larry, first tell us about Sergeant Walker and what he's accused of.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Robert, he's accused of 28 different counts involving 10 different female trainees. This all happened during the year and a half that he was a basic military instructor here at Lackland, which is the chief training base for the Air Force. Those offenses range everywhere from just flirting or making comments about trainees' bodies to rape, and all of them are, of course, illegal under the uniform code of military justice. Rape is obviously the most severe charge and, altogether, these charges could lead to a sentence of life in prison.

SIEGEL: And Sergeant Walker is one of 12 instructors who were accused of abusing female recruits?

ABRAMSON: That's right. And the issue here is whether or not there was some sort of collusion between these different military instructors, whether they were getting together and finding out attractive women and then basically inviting them into areas where they weren't supposed to be. They're not - these military instructors, Robert, are not even supposed to be in the same room alone with a female instructor. But there's some indication that nine of the instructors who are here at Lackland might have been involved in some sort of collusion to get sex.

One has already pleaded guilty to one charge of improper contact. He only got 90 days of confinement and a fine; others are in various stages of investigation. And these men are accused of abusing or assaulting a total of 31 different women.

SIEGEL: Just to be clear, Larry, Sergeant Walker and the others who stand accused were instructors. They actually were the people who were supposedly looking out for the women who were the trainees. Is that right?

ABRAMSON: That's right and that's what makes it so serious for the Air Force is that these young men and women arrive here at Lackland Air Force Base and the parents are pretty much handing off their sons and daughters to these instructors. The instructors are with these trainees for sometimes 20 hours a day. They're very long days and they kind of become their parents in a lot of ways. They turn them into young airmen. They're supposed to instruct them in leadership and they're supposed to instruct them in the ways of the Air Force, and, of course, one of those chief tenants is to do what your superiors tell you to do. Well, if your superior tells you that you should show up in the supply closet and have sex with them, you're pretty likely going to comply.

SIEGEL: What about the superiors of the instructors? That is, where was the leadership of the base during all this and how could they have missed it?

ABRAMSON: Well, the leadership doesn't seem to have known much about this until one trainee and then a number of other instructors came forward and reported these goings on. And I asked the leadership here: Don't you pop in, surprise these people, see if males and females are consorting in a way that's inappropriate? Because many female recruits are overseen by male training instructors. And they say, you know, we rely on regulations. We rely on the system

And that's typical, I think, for the military is that they have systems in place and now they're going to rely on the justice system to do something about this problem and stop it from happening again.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Larry.

ABRAMSON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Larry Abramson. He's at Lackland Air Force Base, the main training center for new Air Force recruits. It's in San Antonio, Texas.

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