By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - A drill instructor accused of raping and sexually assaulting 10 female trainees at Lackland Air Force Base was sentenced on Saturday to 20 years in prison, the stiffest jail term handed down yet in the biggest sex scandal to hit the U.S. military since the 1990s.
Staff Sergeant Luis Walker, found guilty by a military jury on Friday of 28 charges, was ordered to be reduced to lowest rank in the Air Force, to forfeit all pay and allowances, and given a dishonorable discharge. He will also have to register as a sex offender.
Walker took the stand and asked for leniency, saying he did not want to miss his two small boys growing up. He displayed little emotion when the sentence was read, but his relatives, who have remained in the small courtroom throughout the five-day court-martial, began to cry.
The seven-member panel of six men and one woman declined to give him the maximum sentence of life in prison. The jury also had the option of sentencing him to probation instead of prison time. The Uniform Code of Military Justice includes the possibility of parole.
Walker faced rape, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated sexual contact.
"This sends a strong signal that this kind of behavior is absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated," said Susan Pamerleau, a retired Air Force major general and former vice commander of the Air Force Basic Training Program, who was not connected to the case. "I am pleased at how quickly this has happened."
Ten accusers testified against Walker during the court-martial. Four said he used his authority over their military careers to intimidate them into engaging in sexual activities, while others said Walker's attentions included unwanted hugging and kissing and making comments such as "You should be naked."
Walker is the first of seven instructors at Lackland referred for court-martial.
HIGHLIGHTING SEXUAL HARASSMENT ISSUE
Five others at the Texas base are formally under investigation, and 35 more have been taken off active duty while officials look into accusations. Last month, one instructor, Staff Sergeant Peter Vega-Maldonado, pleaded guilty in the case, admitting he had sex with a female trainee. He received a sentence of 90 days' confinement.
It is the largest sex scandal to hit the U.S. military since the 1990s, when accusations of sexual misconduct at the Army's Ordnance Center and School in Aberdeen, Maryland, rocked the Pentagon.
So far, the Lackland case has triggered two Air Force investigations as well as calls for a congressional probe.
It has also highlighted the explosive issues of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces and rekindled a wider debate over how best to train women and integrate them fully into all branches of the military.
Joint Base San Antonio spokesman Brent Boller said Walker was immediately taken into custody following the sentence and would be held in a jail at Lackland while his case is appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
Colonel Polly Kenny, staff judge advocate for the 2nd Air Force and in charge of the prosecution, said the sentence would help convince the American public the sex scandal at Lackland was isolated and under control.
"The external audience of the public is very important," she said. "We are very concerned about the public perception that basic training is not a safe place to be. Our entire goal is to make it safe and secure. We are going to continue to take serious action against anyone who is shown to have violated the rules we have in place to protect the trainees."
More than 70 members of Congress have signed a letter demanding hearings on the issue of how women are treated during military basic training.
(Reporting By Jim Forsyth; Writing by Karen Brooks; Editing by Peter Cooney)