Rocked by sex scandal, Air Force installs woman commander for basic training

At Lackland Air Force Base, dozens of female recruits say they were preyed upon by instructors. Now, Col. Deborah Liddick will run the unit responsible for training 35,000 recruits a year.

US Air Force/AP
This undated image provided by the US Air Force shows Col. Deborah Liddick.

A woman takes command of the Air Force’s basic training program Friday, a nod to the pervasive problem of sexual assault on the base where dozens of female recruits say they were preyed upon by their instructors.

It is a figure that has continued to grow and now stands at 39 potential victims, as more women – and some female instructors – have come forward to report assaults at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

Nine in 10 of the instructors at the base are male. Women make up nearly a quarter of the new recruits they train.

In announcing the promotion of Col. Deborah Liddick to the post, the Air Force did not point out her gender or the alleged assaults. Liddick will run the unit that’s responsible for training some 35,000 new recruits every year.

Still, advocates say they hope it will begin to improve the climate at the base where in July, an instructor was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted of raping one recruit and attempting to rape several others.

Earlier this month, another instructor pleaded guilty to having sex with a trainee under his supervision and was sentenced to one year in prison.

The cases have had some notable setbacks. In June, Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado struck a plea deal after he admitted to having sex with a female trainee. He received 90 days’ confinement after agreeing to testify against his fellow instructors, for which he received immunity.

It was only then that he admitted to having sex with a total of 10 trainees, a source of grave embarrassment for Air Force officials. Consequently, Vega-Maldonado will be discharged from the service after he is released from jail, senior Air Force officials say. He will not be charged in any of the other cases, they add.

Prior to relieving the basic training program’s previous commander for a lack of confidence, Air Force officials stressed that they were taking measures such as increasing the number of anonymous complaint drop boxes around the base.

Senior Air Force officials also say they are mulling the possibility of assigning female cadets in basic training only to women as instructors, although some question the pluses of such a move.

“Benefits?” asked Gen. Edward Rice, head of the service’s Air Education and Training Command, during a June press conference shortly after the scandal broke. “I’m not sure there is one.”

While Liddick’s appointment is an important step, the Air Force should also strongly weigh the possibility of simply hiring more female trainers, says Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine Corps officer.

“Placing women in positions of authority in the military improves the general climate towards women,” she says. But Ms. Bhagwati warns, “For the culture to change at Lackland, we will need to see more women placed in leadership and instructor roles.”

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