The U.S. Air Force has identified at least 31 victims of a growing scandal involving the sexual abuse of female trainees by male instructors.
CNN reports that Gen. Edward Rice, commander of Air Force training, warned there could be even more victims. The Air Force is expanding its probe into the alleged crimes and will "actively seek any others that may have been affected," Rice said.
"We are taking a comprehensive look not only at the cases that we know, but trying to do the best we can to assess whether or not there are other cases out there," Rice told reporters at a Pentagon news conference on Thursday.
The accusations center on sexual misconduct by trainers at Lackland Air Force Base just west of San Antonio, Texas. Gen. Rice said that the Air Force has taken the "unprecedented step" of suspending all recruit training for one day while basic military trainees are surveyed about the incidents.
The scandal broke last June when a female trainee came forward and accused Staff Sgt. Luis Walker of sexually assaulting her. Walker is facing a court-martial on 28 charges, among them rape, adultery and aggravated sexual assault. His court-martial is scheduled for July 16.
Another instructor, Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado, has previously pleaded guilty to having an inappropriate relationship with a female trainee. He also confessed to having similar relationships with 10 other trainees.
In a plea deal, Vega-Maldonado was sentenced to 90 days in prison, 30 days hard labor and a rank and pay reduction in exchange for testifying against two fellow trainers who have been charged with sex crimes.
According to the Defense Department's own figures, 3,191 sexual assaults were reported in all branches of the U.S. armed forces in 2011. But 80% of such crimes are believed to go unreported, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has estimated that as many as 19,000 sexual assaults occur each year in the U.S. military. Less than 8 percent of cases go to court-martial.
Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps officer, told CNN that new recruits and trainees are particularly vulnerable to rape and sexual assault.
"The basic training environment in particular is a target-rich environment for sexual predators," she said.
"You cannot say or do anything without requesting permission from your drill instructor. You cannot use the bathroom, you cannot move from left to right, you are literally in many cases a robot waiting for permission to take a step. And if you have the relationship which is based on fear and intimidation... if that's the person you're asking help from, it becomes a very bizarre scenario."
Bhagwati added that the problem is by no means particular to the Air Force.
Indeed, Marine Corps recruiters have plied underage girls with alcohol before raping them, telling them they needed to have sex in order to become Marines.
But the Air Force has repeatedly been involved in sex scandals. At the highly prestigious U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, one in eight female cadets were the victims of rape or attempted rape in 2003. Fully 70 percent of female cadets reported being sexually harassed. Shockingly, many of these victims were punished for reporting rapes while their attackers usually faced no punishment.
The Air Force responded, as the U.S. military often does when faced with its own atrocities, that the rapes were the work of "a few bad apples." But with so many victims, the Academy was forced to take corrective measures that resulted in a sharp drop in the number of sex crimes.
Still, the problem hasn't gone away completely: in January, three male cadets were charged in separate sexual assault cases.
There are many reasons why troops rape. Lower entry standards enacted during the Bush administration as America waged two major wars against terrorism resulted in a wave of convicted criminals, many of them violent, joining the ranks. Military training in male-dominated organizations is brimming with machismo and sexism also contributes to sexually violent behavior. In addition, lax enforcement and an environment where victims of sex crimes are treated as if they're crazy or criminals reinforces a sense of impunity among would-be offenders.