A military training instructor inspects the formation of a flight of basic trainees. (Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios)
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Two years after a rape allegation against a military training instructor exposed one of the biggest sexual misconduct scandals in military history, trainers who remained at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland said their morale was low, they had little trust in leadership and they didn’t feel as dedicated to their jobs anymore.
Many felt minor missteps could mean the end of their Air Force careers. They believed sweeping changes to basic military training left them at the mercy of undisciplined recruits and leaders quick to take a trainee’s word over their own, according to results obtained by Air Force Times of a July survey of 237 MTIs by the RAND Corp.
Less than half were satisfied with their jobs.
“By far the worst mistake I have ever made is becoming an MTI,” one respondent wrote. “There is not an MTI who would stay here right now. When MTIs talk, they talk about when they are going to leave, not how much they like this place.”
But several people within basic military training told Air Force Times the survey was conducted during a stressful time of transition and that morale has since improved.
“A lot of changes were taking place. They were good changes. Just like any change, it takes a little bit of time and adaptation. It created some stress for some people,” said Tech. Sgt. Daniel Anderson, an instructor for the MTI school.
MTIs were also still working long hours and facing months without leave and extended tours of duty.
“There is no way to have that work pace and not have a negative impact on the quality of life,” said Col. J.D. Willis, deputy director of technical training for Air Education and Training Command. “A large part of their quality of life concerns were due to manning issues, which we have been addressing. We’re well on our way and getting very close.”
The survey also showed an overwhelming majority of MTIs were willing to report a fellow trainer for sexual assault, sexual harassment, unprofessional relationships and maltreatment or maltraining. Few said they were willing to protect one of their own who committed those crimes — a coup for the Air Force, which has made dozens of changes to help ensure the safety of vulnerable recruits. A series of MTI courts-martial in the wake of the scandal showed some trainers had been aware of their colleagues’ offenses but kept quiet.
“By and large, they are willing to do the right thing,” Willis said. “I’m hopeful we’ll see those responses get stronger the next time we’re able to administer a survey. Time will tell. Culture change is one of the more challenging things any institution does.”
Lack of respect
More than 65 percent of MTIs surveyed said they felt basic training leadership took the word of trainees over instructors.
“I am finding that trainees are more commonly trying to look for a reason to report someone, and MTIs are scared to train because they feel they will be reported for something,” one respondent wrote. “I made a correction the other day on a female trainee whose hair was under 1 [inch], which is out of regulations. ... MTIs that [were] sitting next to me said, ‘I wouldn’t have done that, she’s probably going to fill out a critique.’ ”
Less than 35 percent of 237 MTIs surveyed said they believed trainees respected their authority. A handful compared basic training to summer camp.
“We are not setting these trainees up for the Air Force outside BMT. Instead, we are sheltering them and giving them unrealistic low expectations of what is waiting for them outside of these dormitories,” one respondent wrote.
“I really don’t know how to say this, but training should be hard. The trainees should feel a sense of accomplishment. The poor product we are pushing out now has become the standard. I really hope I’m not around to see the next war,” another MTI said.
Respondents also took issue with BMT leadership, which they saw as more likely to take the word of a recruit than a trainer.
One described an email policy that if any MTIs were ever caught criticizingleadership, they would be taken to task. “If I remember correctly, we once removed a foreign dictator from power for something very similar to this,” the MTI wrote.
Instructors also repeatedly slammed a system of critique boxes that allow recruits to drop anonymous complaints about their instructors.
“We promote a critique system (which I am all for when there [is] a cause for it) but these trainees know all they have to do if they don’t like you is fill out negative ones and you’re in trouble. I’ve heard trainees talk about it. This is crazy,” one MTI wrote.
Willis said officials were so concerned with the number of complaints about the critique boxes they went back and reviewed all 1,894 of them since BMT leadership first started highlighting it as a way for trainees to report misconduct.
“Our initial concern, especially from my perspective, was maybe leadership was overreacting and had created a different problem,” Willis said.
The review showed 53 percent of all the comments were actually positive, he said. Some were neutral. About a third were negative.
Only 44 of the nearly 1,900 comments — less than 3 percent — were actually allegations of MTI misconduct.
“Of the 44, a third were found not to be a problem. It was not misconduct or improper behavior,” Willis said. “Of the remaining ones, they were dealt with, from verbal counseling to letters of counseling or reprimand or retraining of some kind, so the MTI understands you crossed a line.”
Willis said BMT leadership was subsequently told to communicate those numbers to instructors.
“They have a perception, too. The MTIs are working off partial information and knowledge. By giving them the picture, we took away the mystique. What we have seen is a changed perspective. I think they have less concern about that,” he said.
Critique boxes, like phone access in trainee day rooms, are an “avenue for them to report any misconduct,” Tech. Sgt. Luis Mercado, a military training instructor, said in an interview with Air Force Times. “It’s a way for protecting those trainees.”
Master Sgt. Jeremy Pickett, commandant of the MTI school, said basic training is turning out more aware airmen. “We’re really focusing on treating each other with dignity and respect. We really want to promote an environment of professionalism,” he said.
“Trainees don’t have more power. Trainees are given additional avenues to report misconduct. I have had major critiques dropped on me before and I’ve been investigated before. As long as MTIs are not doing anything wrong, they are going to be cleared. As long as no misconduct is actually taking place, the instructor is put right back with their flight and the training carries on,” Anderson said.
Most MTIs surveyed in July felt they’d gotten better at their jobs but lacked the necessary tools and resources to do their jobs. Constantly shifting policies left them in a state of uncertainty.
Many were still reeling in the wake of the scandal.
“I feel that MTIs are being treated like we are all criminals because of a few who made some very bad decisions. I feel that our wing leadership treats us as such,” a respondent wrote.
“Right now if you are a more seasoned instructor it feels as though you are under a spotlight and everything you do is looked at to ensure nothing wrong is being done. I understand that things need to be checked but not everybody did something wrong. Tell us what is going on in BMT. We never hear about the MTIs that do something good or bad, so we all still feel that everything we do is for nothing,” another MTI said.
Willis said he empathizes.
“A lot of people at BMT in July of 2013 had been there through those darker days of BMT. While I think I can argue things started to get better for them, it’s hard to overcome the previous year or two of tough conditions,” he said. “I think quality of life has gotten better.”
AETC is also working to standardize policy so instructors know what is expected of them, Willis said. Changes would have to be approved at the command level.
“The whole role of policy is to make it predictable. If you’re changing policy constantly, you don’t have very well thought-out policy. The best part is that for most ... they should have less turbulence in their lives, which they don’t need. They have a very difficult job,” Willis said.■