General who had to handle scandal at Lackland retires
The San Antonio (Texas) Express-News
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Air Force Gen. Edward Rice Jr., who engineered a makeover of basic training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in the wake of a sex scandal that has seen 25 trainers convicted of misconduct, retired Thursday.
Standing before a crowd of more than 400 airmen and civilian dignitaries that included actor Gary Sinise on the JBSA-Randolph flight line, Rice stepped down as leader of the Air Education and Training Command.
Among those attending the ceremony was the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh III.
Gen. Robin Rand took over in the change of command, closing a circle that began decades earlier when Rice chose him for a leadership job while they were cadets at the Air Force Academy.
“I'm absolutely honored to be here today. Kim and I feel like we hit the lottery again,” Rand said, referring to his wife.
Rice was at the helm through a scandal that became the worst in Air Force history. It triggered congressional hearings and helped fuel a campaign to revamp military law by barring commanders from reversing convictions in sex cases.
So far, 34 basic training instructors have come under investigation for misconduct with 68 recruits and airmen, but the worst appears to be over.
A few investigations continue and two trials remain on the docket, with one set for next week.
The Air Force said Thursday that no new cases have arisen in the past 16 months.
“So from that perspective, yes, we are very close to the end of the initial set of investigations,” Rice said in an interview. “But I also would stress that this is a challenge that we will continue to pay a great deal of attention to for as far as you can see into the future.”
A 1978 Air Force Academy graduate, Rice, 57, rose to head one of the service's 10 major commands. He became a B-52 pilot and aircraft commander, logging 4,000 hours in planes that include the B-2.
Rice took command of the AETC in 2010 with a number of issues on his plate, one of them rolling out a pilot training program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force's newest jet.
The program, which uses a sophisticated simulator, is critical because pilots solo alone in the fighter.
But in summer 2011, the Air Force removed a Lackland instructor, Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, after trainee-abuse allegations surfaced. One woman had been raped, and five sexually assaulted, while others had been kissed, groped and bullied into indecent acts.
Walker was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The investigation mushroomed into a series of trials, some marked by sensational allegations of gross instructor misconduct at the base, home of all Air Force basic training.
No one at the outset had any clue of just how bad things had gotten at Lackland or the issues that made the base fertile ground for abuses, among them a shortage of instructors and rare instances where NCOs knew of misconduct but looked the other way.
The Walker case at first seemed to be an outlier, Rice said, one of four or five of its kind that fell onto the Air Force's radar every year at Lackland. But then commanders learned of three potential allegations that appeared to be linked.
“As we started to go and investigate those three very aggressively, a few months later that investigation started to spider, and we went from three to about eight or nine,” he recalled. “And at that point, I knew that this was something that was not ordinary, that it was likely going to be extraordinary and our approach to the challenge changed.”
An investigation by Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward prompted sweeping changes in training.
Most of her recommendations are in place, and many were crafted as a result of allegations raised by recruits who gave in to instructors' demands to have sex out of fear their careers would be ruined.
AETC cleaned house at Lackland, firing two commanders and moving another to the Pentagon after he was in his job for only a year.
Five former commanders and a senior noncommissioned officer at Lackland also were disciplined for their roles in the scandal.
Rice said the biggest changes were in leadership, and in institutional safeguards that include increased surveillance and requires all trainees to be with a wingman at all times.
He said AETC strengthened basic military training leadership teams, and added dozens of officers to supervise instruction on the base.
Today, two instructors oversee every basic-training flight, more women are leading recruits, more cameras are in place and sexual assault hotlines operate in dormitories.
Rice, a scientist's son who spent part of his childhood in San Antonio and is retiring here, said he didn't believe the scandal was a cultural problem “from the definition of culture as there was a culture that thought that this was acceptable and allowable.
“I don't think that was the culture. I don't think it was a cultural problem where we had a large percentage of training instructors who were either involved or even knowledgeable that this was going on,” he said. “I do think it was a cultural problem from the perspective of not enough vigilance within the (trainer) cohort to aggressively police themselves.
“So they are going to be the ones who are closest to this problem and are likely going to see the signs of it before anyone else, and you can't just assume that things are proceeding as they should just by looking on the surface. This is the type of challenge that you have to look below the surface in order to see.”