STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. One of the country's most important military bases has been rocked by charges of sexual assault and rape by a one-time Air Force instructor. Former Staff Sgt. Luis Walker is facing 28 charges of abusing the young, female trainees in his care at Lackland Air Force Base.
Opening statement in Walker's court-martial began this morning at the base in San Antonio, Texas. A total of 12 instructors are under investigation for allegedly abusing recruits at Lackland, which is the main Air Force training center. From San Antonio, NPR's Larry Abramson has this report.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: If what prosecutors say about Staff Sgt. Luis Walker is true, he made life hell for 10 new members of the U.S. Air Force. As a basic military instructor at Lackland Air Force Base here, Walker was supposed to turn green, young recruits into airmen. Instead, the prosecutors will argue, he used his brief tenure to assault female recruits.
Eleven other Air Force instructors also face charges, or investigations, in what appears to be a pattern of abuse at Lackland. Every single Air Force recruit comes through Lackland to start their career. So the Air Force has been shaken by the scandal, and by the possibility that there are more cases out there.
General Edward Rice Jr., commander of the Air Education and Training Command, said recently that the problem, while serious, is limited.
GEN. EDWARD RICE JR.: It is not an issue of an endemic problem throughout basic military training. It is more localized. And we are doing a very intensive investigation on that squadron to find out what, exactly, happened and why.
ABRAMSON: The Air Force is convinced that multiple probes, and vigorous prosecution of those accused, will limit the damage. It has also strengthened its training on sexual assault. Air Force attorney Col. Polly Kenny says this message is being repeated loudly and clearly.
COL. POLLY KENNY: We repeatedly talk to the trainees about legal orders versus illegal orders. There is no time where a trainer should be touching a trainee, under our rules.
ABRAMSON: But some members of Congress say it's naive to urge victims to report abuse, especially when you're talking about brand-new recruits. Democratic congresswoman Jackie Speier, of California, points to the fact that only one victim at Lackland felt safe to come forward on her own. The other charges resulted from instructors identifying misbehavior.
REP. JACKIE SPEIER: Now, the fact that they've identified in the investigation 31 victims, but only one has come forward, should tell us all we need to know. It is not safe in the military to report a crime of rape.
ABRAMSON: Speier agrees with advocacy groups who say relying on the chain of command won't work. Right now, local commanders can decide whether investigations go forward or are quashed. Speier says charges need to be handled by people with experience in going after rape, which can be tough to prosecute. Speier has introduced legislation that would set up an independent authority in the military, for sexual assault.
SPEIER: That would be staffed with experts. They would make the decision whether or not to pursue a court-martial.
ABRAMSON: The military has not been open to this idea, and has resisted anything that undercuts the responsibility of local commands to take care of their own problems. So the trials at Lackland may prove to be a test of the military's commitment to zero tolerance for sexual misconduct.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, San Antonio.