Perception is Reality: What’s really going on at Lackland?
Guest blog post submitted by Jennifer Norris. Norris is on the Protect Our Defenders Advocacy Board and is the Maine Director of the Military Rape Crisis Center. She served in the US Air Force and survived military rape and sexual assault.
For those that have spent time in the military, you have at one point or another heard the phrase “Perception is Reality”. This simple phrase rings so true given how the United States Air Force is currently handling the Sex Abuse/Rape scandal at the Lackland AFB Basic Training facility. Since watching this “scandal” unfold, I have witnessed a series of unfortunate missteps that I feel are most likely hurting the American public’s perception of the military, which may have negative impacts on the recruitment numbers as well. We don’t want that, if the Air Force is genuinely trying to clean house. We want to help civilians understand what is happening in order to educate them about the risks and the process.
Due to the seriousness of the crime, we also want an opportunity to meet with the House Armed Services Committee so we can help educate them about how things work in the military. Based on what has occurred at Lackland, I believe that we need survivors, family, advocates, and our Congressional members to meet at the table to discuss the various, complex pieces including military culture, modis operandi of a predator, military justice system in theory, military trial procedures and outcomes, plea agreements, lesser charges, low prosecution rates, etc.
We desperately need the survivors to share their stories with Congress so they can hear their unique perspectives. There is a lot to be learned from similar stories, similar crimes, similar treatment, similar abuses, similar outcomes, and similar injustices. From the research that I have conducted, we are definitely seeing the same trends with both the treatment of victims and the attitude of Commands. Things are getting more and more hostile and we are dealing with a form of workplace violence, in addition to criminal activity.
First I want to start by talking about the lone instructor, SSgt Christopher Beck, who overheard a couple of other Basic Training Instructors bragging about having sex with basic trainees. This instructor shared that when he learned of the information that it bothered him greatly and he wasn’t sure what to do for a couple of days. Eventually, he did report the behavior to those in his Chain of Command because it weighed on his conscience heavily. But, let’s take a step back and look at why that one instructor was hesitant to report his peers. For those who are in the military, you know why he was hesitant to report the behavior. For those who are not in the military, I will attempt to explain the culture that exists within the military and has since the beginning.
Nobody likes a “rat.” In the military, it is all about having each other’s backs and keeping things at the absolute lowest level possible. There is a strict adherence to the Chain of Command and a troop that jumps a person in the Chain of Command will face serious repercussions, including getting scolded at the very minimum by that person in the Chain of Command that was blindsided. There is a definite disconnect between the enlisted personnel and the officers. Officers depend on their enlisted personnel for accurate information so that they can make decisions based on that information. Because of the Chain of Command, the information that funnels its way to the top and bottom gets diminished with each person it goes through. And, in some cases, those same people in the Chain of Command purposefully withhold information for whatever reason, self-preservation mostly.
Why was the basic training instructor hesitant to report his peer’s illegal behavior? I think the answer lies within the context of the military culture. We are trained to move forward as a team. When one of the team members steps out of line and calls someone out for unethical, illegal, inept behavior, it disturbs the ebb and flow of the team work mentality. The person accused is going to become defensive and immediately turn things around on the person pointing out the behavior. We are trained to follow orders and because of the rank and file mentality, those that question authority are usually jumped by the pack. Following direct orders is important for certain environments like basic training and war but collaboration goes a long way when attempting to make the best team possible. Competition, withholding information, and using rank to establish control are just some of the downsides to this authoritative approach.
But, we are talking about the military. Basic training prepares future airmen for the art of war. Hence the reason that the assaults and rapes that occurred at that particular site are so heinous. Basic training is the ultimate master-slave relationship. From the day that we step off that bus, we are following direct orders. The training instructor is tasked with teaching you how to follow, creating warriors, and building a team. I had the honor of having a good basic military training instructor. I always wanted to find SSgt Knight and thank him for teaching me such valuable lessons.
It is our responsibility to the country to work as a team to accomplish the mission. We cannot have in-fighting and pettiness get in the way of the task at hand. We are not always going to agree with our leader’s decisions but in most cases we need to trust that they have knowledge that we do not have and have made that decision for a reason. I do think it is important with today’s generation especially that we help our troops understand the big picture so they can see where they fit in. It’s all about following direct orders in a high stress, high tempo environment. We must trust that our leadership is going to do the right thing if we agree to this kind of blind followership.
So when someone like a basic training instructor takes advantage of his or her position and puts a trainee in a position where they are not really sure how to respond for fear of the repercussions, that is the ultimate abuse of power. Whether these basic trainee recruits were even slightly interested in the sexual advances from the basic training instructors is irrelevant. It is automatically assumed that the instructor has the upper hand and it is clearly a breach of trust for that instructor to even attempt to make a sexual advance given the directive type training environment. Most of these recruits are straight out of high school, have never been out of their parents home, and just don’t have the mental fortitude to deal with being put in a difficult situation let alone an illegal human rights violation. We have heard testimony from victims of sexual abuse who repeatedly share that they froze because they didn’t know what to do or they were afraid for their life. Now add the military authoritative structure and the directive type training environment and you have a haven for serial sexual predators.
These instructors who did abuse their authority by making sexual advances, let alone actually assaulting or raping someone, are reprehensible. What a horrible position to put a young person willing to serve their country in. These young recruits took that step and joined the military trusting that they were doing the right thing for the country and in most cases fulfilling a dream. The threat of losing the career you have set out to do is not what you have in mind at basic training. As a matter of fact, you have all you can do to get through the day to day activities, the mental and physical exhaustion, and the transformation from civilian to warrior. We are supposed to go through that experience and come out a better person, and in most cases we do. It is a very rewarding accomplishment and becomes something that you desperately do not want to lose, especially after you have come so far.
I will never forget how proud I was to march in formation, attend official ceremonies, and wear that uniform. It was the best feeling in the world to be a part of something bigger then me. I listened to every word my leaders said and used that knowledge to learn from them. The majority of the people that I served with were honorable, amazing people that I respected greatly. That’s what I didn’t want to lose. So the threat of losing my career was as real for me as it was for the basic trainees who shared that the reason they didn’t report was because they feared that very same thing. Whether it was stated outright or not, it was still implicitly implied that the basic training instructors had all the power and control and could easily end your career with the stroke of a pen. It is the ultimate abuse of power no matter what way you look at it. This is not a sex scandal. These are crimes and go against everything that the USAF claims it stands for: Integrity, Service before Self, and Excellence in all we do.
So why is it that SSgt Peter Vega-Maldonado was given 90 days in jail for agreeing to testify against others? He initially admitted to two victims but then revealed that he actually had ten victims. Why is it that SSgt Luis Walker got twenty years for ten different victims (2 years per victim, if he doesn’t get out early for good behavior)? And, why is it that the TSgt Christopher Smith was given 30 days and not dishonorably discharged from the Air Force? Why is it that Lt Col Mike Paquette of the 331st Squadron was relieved of duty? What was his role in this? Did he know about the crimes and fail to act? Why is it that Col Glenn Palmer, Commander of the 737th Training Group was relieved of duty? From the outsiders perspective, he appeared to take the allegations seriously and was doing what he was supposed to do. What kind of message does that send to other Commanders? Are they going to be hesitant to report for fear that their careers are going to be stalled and/or negatively impacted, despite doing the best they could do? Why is it that the Senior Enlisted leadership have not been mentioned let alone relieved of their duties? Where are the First Sergeants? Aren’t they supposed to be the eyes and ears for the Commander and keep them up on the enlisted personnel issues and morale of the Squadrons? Are these Commanders being scapegoated or did they actually do something wrong and inappropriate? It would behoove the Air Force public relations office to clarify these issues because perception is reality.
The heinous nature of the crimes and the context in which they were committed calls for an immediate discharge from the military if they are found guilty. These serial predators cannot be trusted in positions of authority and leadership…Instead of calling a spade a spade, we instead hear about how this has affected their careers, their families, their finances, etc. No one talks about the long lasting psychological effects of sexual abuse and rape, crimes that take away your sense of security and trust in other people. Nor does anyone talk about the negative impact these crimes are having on the morale and readiness of our soldiers.
Who should be held accountable for these crimes? The answer is simple. The rapists and anyone who had knowledge of the illegal activity and did not report it. I have major respect for SSgt Christopher Beck, who had the courage to report the crimes perpetrated by his peers. But remember, why was he hesitant to report in the first place? Unfortunately, those of us who have served in the military know that the person who stands out and stands for integrity is not always the hero. I would be interested to learn how this instructor is doing and whether or not he is being ostracized, ridiculed, harassed, or mistreated in any way. The answer to that question and why he was hesitant to report will help civilians realize how incredibly powerful the military culture is. Understanding the dynamics of this culture will help us get at the root of the problem. The ethical, honest, honorable troops should be rewarded for doing the right thing, even when no one is looking.