By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force said on Saturday it selected a woman to serve as the new commander of basic training as the service wrestles with allegations that male instructors sexually assaulted and harassed female trainees.
Colonel Deborah Liddick will succeed Colonel Glenn Palmer, who was relieved in August as commander of the 737th Training Group at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, the unit that provides basic training to roughly 35,000 Air Force recruits each year.
Liddick's appointment comes at a critical time for Air Force basic training. Thirty-eight women have come forward with what the Air Force considers to be legitimate complaints of being the victim of improper sexual contact at the hands of trainers.
Seventeen male military training instructors have been implicated in an investigation into sexual contact between instructors and female recruits. Four were convicted or pleaded guilty before courts-martial at Lackland.
One instructor was convicted of sexually assaulting female recruits and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The others were sentenced to terms ranging from 30 days to 12 months.
The Lackland probe is the biggest sex scandal in the military in 16 years, and the biggest ever for the Air Force.
Liddick, who is scheduled to take command on Friday, currently is serving as chief of the maintenance division at Randolph Air Force Base, also in San Antonio.
Liddick has no experience supervising basic training, but Colonel Mark Camerer, who took command two weeks ago of the 37th Training Wing that supervises all Air Force training, cited her command record.
"She has demonstrated throughout her Air Force career that she is an extremely capable office and leader," Camerer said in a statement.
Nancy Parrish, who heads the group Protect Our Defenders, which advocates for woman in the military, praised the promotion, but said Liddick had her work cut out for her.
"Hopefully, Colonel Liddick will do a great job," Parrish said in an interview. "But Lackland is just a small example of a much larger problem endemic throughout all the services."
(Editing by Ian Simpson and Peter Cooney)