By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - In a widening sex scandal at an Air Force facility in Texas, a drill sergeant will face a court martial next month on charges he had inappropriate relationships with a female recruit, joining five other instructors accused of similar crimes.
The six military instructors - the latest two of whom were charged on Tuesday - have been referred to court martial for having sexual relations or engaging in inappropriate relationships with trainees at Lackland Air Force Base, according to Air Force officials. The sprawling San Antonio facility is the home of all Air Force basic training.
Six other sergeants have been notified that they are under investigation in the scandal, and nearly three dozen have been transferred to other duties, according to David Smith, an Air Force spokesman.
The two who were charged this week are accused of wrongfully conducting a sexual relationship with a subordinate and wrongfully making sexual advances toward trainees, Smith said. Married sergeants have also been charged with adultery, which is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. One sergeant is charged with aggravated sexual assault and faces the possibility of life in prison.
"Any time allegations like this are made we take them very seriously and investigate them thoroughly," said Brent Boller, a spokesman for Joint Base San Antonio, which operates Lackland.
Military policy prohibits personal relationships between instructors and trainees in their squadrons during the intense eight-week program in which civilians are introduced to military life, learning everything from the proper way to salute to how to fire an M-16 rifle.
The scandal dates back to last year, when Staff Sgt. Luis Walker was charged with 28 counts including: aggravated sexual assault, having an unprofessional relationship, adultery and obstructing justice. He is scheduled for court martial July 16.
Another staff sergeant charged last year, Peter Vega-Maldonado, faced less serious charges of engaging in a prohibited relationship. He agreed to plead guilty and help investigators in exchange for a lesser sentence of 90 days in jail. He admitted to having sexual relationships with 10 different recruits, according to an Air Force statement.
Last week, Gen. Edward Rice, who oversees Air Force education, ordered an independent investigation to be headed by Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, a deputy chief of staff at Air Force headquarters in Washington, D.C., and one of the highest-ranking women in the Air Force.
As the Air Force has struggled to determine the scope of the scandal, one training group commander, Lt. Col. Mike Paquette, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, was removed from his position as the head of a training squadron. Other commanders are asking trainees to report suspicious activities.
"I tell the trainees, you are my neighborhood watch, each and every one of you," Col. Glenn Palmer, commander of a training group, told Reuters. "If there is any military training instructor misconduct going on, report it. If it is happening to you, report it. If you observe it happening, be a good wingman and report it."
About 35,000 men and woman undergo basic military training at Lackland every year, according to the Air Force.
The Lackland case has become the biggest sex scandal to hit the military in 16 years, since 12 Army officers and enlisted personnel were charged with sexually assaulting female trainees under their command at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
The widening Lackland scandal has prompted some members of Congress to call for a congressional investigation into sexual harassment in the military.
"Congress has known about this problem in the military for 25 years," Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, said in a statement.
Rice said the Air Force is committed to understanding the scope of the problem and bringing it under control.
"Misconduct, particularly when committed by faculty or staff with trainees or students, undermines an entire team, damages good order and discipline, and threatens the trust the American people have in us as professionals and as an institution," he said. "It will not be tolerated."
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Leslie Gevirtz)