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Newsmonger

Newsmonger: Congress will hold Lackland hearings

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The 19-year-old victim testified that after two months of obeying orders from Estacio she was too afraid to resist when Estacio made advances in a dark supply room.

Asked why she didn't resist, the woman testified, "I was too scared to. … Sometimes when somebody's too scared to talk, does that mean they want to do something?"

Estacio was sentenced to one year in prison after pleading guilty to charges of obstruction and for having sex with a trainee in violation of Air Force rules. The nearly-identical case against Staff Sgt. Craig LeBlanc is set to go to trial on October 9 – LeBlanc is charged with aggravated sexual assault, obstruction and for violating rules banning sexual relationships with trainees.

Bearing on the cases that have come to light at Lackland, a congressional hearing must probe how trainers may be abusing the inherent power imbalance in boot camp, and whether sex between trainer and trainee should ever be considered consensual, says retired Air Force Tech Sgt. Jennifer Norris, an advocate with a Military Rape Crisis Center who was sexually assaulted in while in the Air Force.

During the summer trial of Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, who was eventually convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison, trainees testified Walker would tell women under his command he was a god, accountable to no one.

"The power imbalance in the military training instructor environment is something that's not really being addressed at these trials," Norris said. "That's what makes this crime so heinous," she said. "It's a psychological crime."

The abuse at Lackland isn't new, either. Between 2002 and 2011, 24 Lackland instructors, most of them men, faced administrative or criminal charges due to illicit conduct with trainees, the Express-News reported last month. All but 10 of those cases were handled in confidential, closed-door administrative hearings, shielding the details of those cases.

Heightened attention to sexual assault in the military pushed Secretary of Defense Panetta to bump sexual assault investigations up the chain of command to a higher-ranking colonel, while also calling for special victim units in each branch of the military to stem the problem.

Two key commanders at Lackland have been shown the door as the scandal unravels. Lt. Col. Mike Pacquette, commander of the 331st Training Group, where most of the accused instructors worked, and Col. Glenn Palmer, who arrived a year ago to head the 737th Training Group, were both relieved of duty, with Air Force officials citing a "lack of confidence." This weekend the Air Force appointed Col. Deborah Liddick as commander of the 737th.

The Air Force has yet to release details from a recently completed investigation by Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward. The investigation should shed light on whether a culture of silence and tolerance for sexual abuse fueled the scandal at Lackland.

Still, victims and advocates are unconvinced the Pentagon's reforms are enough, and during a congressional hearing on the Lackland scandal they're sure to bring up a measure introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee, that would hand responsibility for sexual assault cases to an independent civilian agency within the Defense Department.

"Career-ending action against instructors and their commanders who ignore the rules or sweep these cases under the rug is what's required," Parrish said.

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