By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is considering whether to revamp basic training for recruits, including separate training for women and men, following the worst U.S. military sex scandal in 16 years involving a dozen male drill sergeants accused of abusing women.
Twelve male military training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, the home of all Air Force basic training, are under investigation for seeking sexual favors from female Air Force trainees.
Six instructors have been referred to court martial on charges ranging from attempting to have a sexual relationship with a recruit to adultery and aggravated sexual assault.
The first of the court martials begins on July 16, when Sergeant Luis Walker will face several counts of aggravated sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, having an unprofessional relationship, adultery and obstructing justice. He could face life in prison.
The investigation so far has identified 31 victims of abuse by the trainers, according to General Edward Rice, the commander of Air Force training. "We are leaving no stone unturned," he said last week.
In the Air Force, women and men serve together in units, known as training flights, and they live either in separate barracks or across the hall from male trainees, with separate bathing and sleeping areas.
About 10 percent of the drill sergeants - known in the Air Force as Military Training Instructors (MITs) - are female and they command both men and women.
"I will look at whether or not we need to both hire more female MITs and whether or not we need to adjust our process to have only female MITs over female flights," Rice said at a briefing on June 28.
Not since nearly 50 women made sexual abuse allegations against instructors at the Aberdeen, Maryland, Army base in 1996, has the military faced such a sex scandal.
The Air Force says 18.9 percent of its active duty force are women, the highest of any military branch. All the services have expanded opportunities for women in recent decades.
The Lackland scandal has sparked a spirited debate between those who believe it is unrealistic to expect few problems when male instructors are commanding new female recruits, and those who say the military should keep them together but do a better job of training and policing.
"Hopefully, this will cause our leadership to stop the social engineering and recognize reality," said Jeffrey Addicott, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and longtime legal adviser to the Army Special Forces. "By mixing females alongside males, the military is setting itself up for failure."
He said in most civilian jobs people work eight or more hours a day and go home, while in the military they live and work together 24 hours a day.
Separating men from women is exactly the wrong solution according to Nancy Duff Campbell, founder and co-president of the National Women's Law Center, which advocates for women in the military.
"You need to increase the numbers of women, so they are not seen as 'the other,' they are seen as part of the group. Saying that women are somehow the problem so we have to separate them out, is not the way to go," she said.
Campbell said the Marine Corps, which is the only branch of the military to have basic training segregated by gender, also has a significant number of sexual harassment complaints.
California Representative Jackie Speier has called for congressional hearings to allow women who have been victims of sexual assault and abuse in Air Force basic training to speak out to someone other than military officials.
In addition to prosecuting offenders, the military should train instructors to make clear there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment and train female recruits to ensure they can get out of situations if they occur, said Susan Pamerleau, a former vice commander of Air Force basic training.
"These young women want to make a good impression," Pamerleau, a retired Air Force major general, said of recruits. "They are taught that their instructor is in charge ... But it is important that the trainee understand what limits there are."
(Additional reporting by Lauren French; Editing by Greg McCune and Eric Beech)