From the Army Chief of Staff Raymond T. Odierno:
It is time we take on the fight against sexual assault and sexual harassment as our primary mission.
I had a talk with a squadron commander down at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, TX, ground zero in the current frenzy over sexual assault in the Air Force.
Φ: It must be mentally taxing to wake up every day viscerally afraid of what you will read on the front page of the paper.
CC: It’s a hostile work environment. Over the last two years I have seen my boss, his boss, and multiple other squadron commanders been relieved of command, their careers essentially over. I have been involved in two courts martial and scores of letters of reprimand (LORs) and admonishment (LOAs). For our enlisted Military Training Instructors (MTIs), these can prevent them from reenlisting, essentially casting them out of the service with 15 years in.
Φ: How has this impacted the ability to find MTIs?
CC: A few years ago, being an MTI was a good career move, so we had more volunteers than opportunities. Now, nobody volunteers, and the Air Force has to “non-vol” people to the assignment. And even then, a fair number of non-vols suddenly come down with disqualifying physical ailments that prevent them from serving. So the Air Force Personnel Center burns through a lot of people to keep the place staffed.
Φ: I have to say, as someone who confines his sexual assaulting to his own house, that I have trouble understanding the mentality of the guy who wakes up and thinks that rape is a good idea.
CC: Rape is almost never involved. Almost all of these relationships are consensual as normal people understand the word. But they are nonetheless improper by Air Force regulations. Trainees are off-limits to instructors. They usually get started at the end of Basic Training. An instructor will slip a trainee his number with a give-me-a-call-sometime. Which the trainee, besotted with the status and power of her MTI, will of course do. She will be in “tech school” (specialty training) by this point, but is still off-limits to MTIs.
Φ: My impression is that illicit relationships usually come to light when they go bad, as they often do. Is that the case here?
They can go bad in several ways. The Office of Special Investigations (OSI) runs a hotline where anyone can call to report an MTI, and twenty or so agents whose full time duty is to investigate the claims. The reporters are often the trainees claiming an affair with their MTI, but it can also be an angry wife. The MTIs are also reporting on each other, which is the primary way the scandal has spider-webbed as it has.
Φ: Are there any repercussions on trainees for their role in the affair?
CC: Only if we can prove that they lied about the affair, which is a practical impossibility, even if the claim itself is found to lack merit.
But that kind of dynamic has come to permeate the training environment over the last couple of years. There has been an explosion in the number of rules governing what MTIs can do and not do, and a whole different attitude towards enforcement. There are a million ways in which an MTI can get into trouble.
Here is an example. I had to write a “letter of counseling” documenting an infraction for an MTI for having “tossed” mail at a trainee during mail call when the rules say that mail must be “handed” to trainees. Now, there was no evidence of malicious intent here: the MTIs are handing out mail to fifty people and trying to get it done quickly. So he’s tossing mail in their laps as they sit around the room. All it took was for one trainee to take issue with this for the MTI to get in trouble.
Another mail-related example: the regulations say that trainees are to be given time to read their mail each evening. An MTI consulted with his flight about how to balance this with the need to clean the barracks prior to an inspection the next morning. The consensus was that they should get the work done first, but one dissenter decided to report the MTI for not allowing enough mail-reading time.
Sometimes this reporting is malicious. In one case recently, we had a female MTI, good at her job and popular with most of the trainees, run afoul of a couple of people who decided they were going to get her fired. So they carefully kept a log of her minutest infractions. None of this was a secret. The other trainees told us they were doing this, they admitted their intent, but at the end of investigation, it didn’t matter. The MTI was fired, and the trainees are now part of our Air Force.
Φ: I don’t have a well-developed theory of military training. I only know what it was like when I went through it. But I am concerned about the kind of airmen this new kind of training environment is going to produce.
CC: I don’t think anybody knows the answer to this question. We’re probably going to find out as these people go about their careers.
Φ: What kind of metrics do you track that measure the effectiveness of your training at producing quality airmen.
CC: There is a complete failure to keep quality metrics at any phase of this process. We in basic training don’t measure anything except the rate at which our airmen complete the program. But the problems begin in recruiting. Air Force recruiters are evaluated on their ability to meet certain quotas of enlistments, but the quota is considered met as soon as the recruit steps on the bus to head to Lackland. There are therefore no incentives to recruit quality or match it to appropriate career fields.
Φ: What are the consequences of this?
CC: Let me give you an example. The Air Force puts a priority on creating battlefield airmen: Air Force Special Operations, mainly combat rescue and combat control. People are recruited into this career field before they arrive at Basic. Once at Basic, while they receive much the same training, they are subjected not only to a more demanding physical fitness regimen, including swimming. But in my experience, many of these recruits discover that the requirements of Special Operations aren’t quite like playing HALO on the XBox. But they’ve already signed a contract. They can’t just transfer out of Special Ops. But they can fail out of it. Suddenly, we find people unable to pass the PAST* test that they were able to do before arriving.
Φ: So people are sandbagging it.
CC: Probably, but we don’t know. It could be recruiters are fudging the numbers in order to get recruits who meet particular demographic criteria into the program.
Φ: Demographic criteria?
CC: Oh, yeah. Recruiters have quotas, but they also get double points for matching certain minorities to particular career fields. They can get the word: “This month we’re having a two-for-one sale on Asians in CCT.”
Φ: Umm . . . Asians?
CC: Or . . . whatever.** And we in Basic have the opposite problem: we get fit guys whose recruiters didn’t tell them about Special Ops who learn about it when they get here and ask for a transfer. But they already have contracts to go into other fields, so we can’t just move them over.
Φ: What are the physical standards for basic trainees like?
CC: They are strictly controlled. Once upon a time, if a trainee flight fell out of line, it was common for the MTIs to pack them in a room and tell them that they would do calisthenics “until the walls sweat.” Now they can’t tell recruits to do more than 20 seconds of calisthenics at a time, although as training progresses they can be assigned multiple 20 second rounds in a session.
Every so often, we still get trainees who drop dead in the San Antonio heat. There is a bit of theater about it: we identify trainees who have or had certain conditions, and require them to wear a yellow ribbon around their arms during PT. Of course, they still have to do the PT, and treatment for any problems is the same whether they have a ribbon or not, so it has exactly zero impact. But it does give the commandant something to point that says, “I’m doing something to prevent trainees dropping dead during PT.”
Φ: Kind of a metaphor for the military’s approach to sexual assault, come to think of it. I would have thought that people with health problems would have been screened out.
CC: Not all health problems are disqualifying, but yes, the front-end screening isn’t as extensive as it perhaps should be. There is some medical screening during the recruiting phase, but much more once they get here. For instance, I had to tell one recruit he was H.I.V. positive.
Φ: How would you characterize the quality of your recruits overall.
CC: Historically speaking, they’re pretty good. The average age of our recruits is higher than it was, as is the education level. Whatever my other complaints, recruiters are sending us guys with college degrees now.
Φ: Umm . . . yeah, that’s the crappy economy working to your benefit. Recruiters don’t have much to do with it.
CC: I guess that’s a fair point.
* BTW, for reasons I’m too lazy to research, the PAST test is easier now than when I took it in ‘95. Back then we had to swim 1500 meters and run 3 miles, vice 1000 and 1.5.
** This squadron commander is a good and honest man, but he is unencumbered by any political or ideological loyalties of which I am aware.