DOD News Briefing with Gen. Edward Rice Jr. from the Pentagon
LT. COL. JOHN DORRIAN: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It's my privilege today to welcome General Edward Rice, Jr., commander of Air Education and Training Command. General Rice has been AETC commander since November of 2010. AETC consists of 12 bases, almost 68,000 active-duty, Reserve, Guard, civilians, and contractors, and more than 1,300 trainer, fighter, and mobility aircraft.
General Rice has been in Washington for the past couple of days, briefing members of Congress and their staffs on the comprehensive strategic review of the Air Force training community, as well as the ongoing investigations into military training instructor misconduct. The general's here to discuss these topics today and to answer your questions.
He'll have some brief opening remarks. Then he'll ask -- take your questions. In order to make sure that we can answer as many questions as possible, I'll select a reporter and ask that you limit yourself to a question and follow-up, and then let someone else ask theirs. When you ask your question, please give your name and your organization.
General Rice, sir, the floor is yours.
GEN. EDWARD RICE: Thank you all for coming today. I'd like to make a brief statement and then open the floor to your questions.
Let me begin by saying you're going to hear me use the word "alleged" numerous times today. This is because most of the cases that I will discuss are still moving through the legal process, and it's important that we not prejudge any of these cases in any way and remember that each person that we are investigating is innocent until proven guilty.
Basic military training in the United States Air Force is conducted at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Each year, approximately 35,000 young Americans complete the intensive eight-and-a-half-week training program and become the newest airmen in the United States Air Force. The training program is administered by a cadre of some 500 military training instructors, or MTIs, who have been selected after undergoing a rigorous screening process and completing an intensive training program.
The vast majority of these MTIs are great Americans, who live up to the high standards we demand of those who are entrusted with the critically important and sensitive mission of turning ordinary citizens into airmen.
In the fall of 2011, we discovered to our great disappointment that we had a number of MTIs who were alleged to have engaged in sexual misconduct with trainees. Some of this alleged misconduct occurred while the trainees were in basic military training, and some of this alleged misconduct occurred after the trainees graduated from BMT, but were still in what we call the technical training environment. In the former cases, the trainees were under the direct supervision of the alleged perpetrator. In the latter cases, they were not.
That said, regardless of whether the activity occurred in basic military training or in the technical training environment, personal relationships of any kind between trainees and instructors is strictly prohibited by our regulations and our instructions.
As soon as we received the first allegation of misconduct, we aggressively investigated the matter and further tightened those protective measures that were already in place. For example, the training group commander and an interdisciplinary team, including the judge advocate, the sexual assault response coordinator, and the chaplain brief all trainees within 72 hours of their arrival on their rights and responsibilities to report misconduct.
The training group commander reads every urgent sheet from a trainee within 24 hours. It's a comment sheet that we have, so he reads very urgent comment sheet from a trainee within 24 hours, and any -- any allegation of sexual misconduct results in immediate action, including the instructor is removed from his or her flight, a no-contact order is issued, and the MTI hat which signifies -- identifies that person as an instructor is temporarily removed, pending investigations.
Our commanders at every single level continue to aggressively work issues and to be as transparent as possible with the public. Moreover, we worked diligently to identify the victims and provide them with care and support. We have trained professionals at all of our bases to provide medical care and counseling for our airmen.
We're also reviewing a series of actions to address systemic issues, such as expanded training for trainees, instructors, and leadership, reassessing the instructor selection process, hiring more instructors, and other initiatives. These actions are designed to help us address the root causes of the issue.
To help ensure we have left no stone unturned in this regard, I have also directed a review by a major general who was not assigned to Air Education and Training Command. This external review will examine all the actions we have taken thus far to address this issue and provide me with feedback on what more we can do to prevent misconduct in our training environment and to strengthen our entire training enterprise.
In closing, I want to underscore again that the vast majority of our 500 military training instructors are performing magnificently in a tremendously demanding environment. No one -- no one is more angry and disappointed than they are that a relatively small number of their cadre has cast a shadow over the entire program.
I am committed, as are they, and as everyone -- and as everyone who is involved in the basic military training program, we are all committed to doing everything possible to investigate those allegations, to take care of the victims, to hold the perpetrators accountable, and to fix any institutional problems that may have facilitated this completely unacceptable behavior.
Thank you for your attention. I'm ready to take your questions.
Q: What do you say to women out there who want to go to the Air Force, through the basic training? How can they be assured that they will be protected going through this, given the large number of cases?
GEN. RICE: I would tell any young lady, as I would tell any young man -- the Air Force is a great way of life. The feedback that we get from people who have gone through our training program, 98 percent to 99 percent of them say it's been a great training experience for them and that they're proud of being part of the Air Force and looking forward to serve. So I would tell them to join and that they can be assured that we will continue to do everything that we can to -- excuse me -- provide them with a safe and secure training environment.
Q: How do you explain the large number of cases that have come about -- 12 cases here? That's --
GEN. RICE: We have a very rigorous screening process and a training process in order to ensure that we are doing everything we can to provide instructors for our trainees who will live up to our high standards. That said, our process is not perfect. And as with other institutions, we on a continuing basis look at those processes and procedures in that entire training program to ensure that we are doing everything possible to get instructors who will adhere to our very high standards of conduct.
And when we find someone who doesn't, as in this case, we take very aggressive action to identify them and hold them accountable for their actions. And we will continue to do that.
Q: One of the airmen, Airman -- I believe it was Vega-Maldonado -- copped a plea, admitting that he had an improper relationship with one of the trainees, but then later, in an evidentiary hearing, he admitted that it wasn't one woman, it was 10. Does that cause you to worry that there are many, many -- many cases out there that you haven't discovered yet?
GEN. RICE: We are taking a comprehensive look, not only at the cases that we know, but trying to do the best that we can to assess whether or not there are other cases out there. So we have interviewed all of the basic military trainees who were -- at least we've given a survey to all the basic military trainees who were in training at that time, and we are broadening the scope of our investigation to ensure that we've done everything we can to identify the scope of what we are dealing with.
And at this point, we have identified some 31 victims and are actively seeking any others that may have been affected by this.
Q: General, Craig Whitlock with the Washington Post. You know, you've talked about the screening process for instructors. You know, these aren't just any people in the Air Force. These are your instructors, dealing with recruits. And as you made clear, the rules were pretty straightforward, in terms of sexual misconduct and harassment with recruits, are pretty black-and-white. Is there a cultural problem, do you think, at Lackland, that you could have this number of instructors be implicated in investigations like this? And is there a command climate problem there, as well?
GEN. RICE: I think it's important to note, I indicated we had 12 instructors that are under investigation. Nine of those 12 were in one unit. So we have an organization by squadron and basic military training. We have a total of nine squadrons, and nine of them came from one squadron.
So in my assessment to this point, it is not an issue of an endemic problem throughout basic military training. It is more localized, and we are doing a very intensive investigation on that squadron to find out what exactly happened and why.
Q: Sorry, to follow up real quick, the 31 victims, were -- were they all from Lackland or other bases, as well?
GEN. RICE: They all went through training at Lackland.
Q: That was where the nature of the --
GEN. RICE: The nature of the misconduct could have happened -- could have happened in basic military training when they were under the direct supervision of a trainer or it could have happened after they graduated and were in the technical training environment, so that may not have happened at Lackland. It could have happened weeks or months later.
Q: Sir, which squadron had the nine in the one unit? And who was the commander of that squadron?
GEN. RICE: I'll provide you that information, both off the record [note: information was provided after the briefing on the record]. It was the 331st Training Squadron, was the --
Q: I'm sorry, 331st?
GEN. RICE: Yes.
Q: And who is the commander?
GEN. RICE: That I'll get to you. I don't recall the name.
Q: Sir, Luis Martinez with ABC News. You mentioned that there's a survey that's gone out to potential people that may have been affected by this. Can you give us the parameters for that? I mean, what is the universe of people who are receiving that survey? How far back does it go, in terms of experience?
GEN. RICE: Initially, we surveyed everybody who was at BMT at the time, basic military training, so we took a very almost unprecedented step of shutting down basic military training for an entire day, 24-hour period, and we took a series of actions --to and include surveying all of the trainees to get their assessment of the training program and whether or not or they had experienced any misconduct. And the results of that were that we got very little back, in terms of negative comments from our trainees.
We -- as a part of the larger investigation that I have directed -- are now expanding that survey process to look back at other classes who have gone through, and that will be much more extensive, going back one to two years of period of time.
Q: Number -- an estimate of the universe -- how much -- how many thousands or how many hundreds of people are you potentially talking about?
GEN. RICE: We train 35,000 airmen a year. And I would again underscore, as we survey each and every one of them at the end of their training experience, the vast majority of them, 98 percent, 99 percent, give us very positive feedback on their training experience. So, I don't depend on only the survey to provide me with feedback on whether or not we have an issue here. That's one means, but not the only means that we’re using.
Q: General, Karen Parrish, American Forces Press Service. What recourse do trainees have during training to make a complaint, ask for help, reach out? I mean, it's normally a very tight environment. There's not a lot of outside contact. So how can they raise an issue? And how often do they have the opportunity?
GEN. RICE: One of the most effective means -- so they're -- I would answer it in two ways. First, they have sessions at the end of each day with their training instructor, and leadership comes in and attends some of those training sessions, so there's an opportunity there.
But there's also a series of comment boxes placed throughout basic military training, in places where they won't be seen if they put a comment in there, and so they have an opportunity on a, you know, daily basis several times a day to anonymously fill out a comment and let us know if there's something wrong. And we've -- we've had this in place for many years as a way of giving us feedback, and allowing them to have feedback.
Q: Sir, hi, this is David Cloud with the L.A. Times. Just so I’m clear, there are 31 identified victims so far. Are those all recent trainees? I mean, and how far back does that -- does the period in which they were in training go? And are you concerned that there may be many more who were trained by these same people or by this -- by this unit who might be affected?
GEN. RICE: These are all relatively recent trainees, as in they've been through the training program in the last two years. So since about '09, maybe two-and-a-half years, so about the fall of '09 was when these victims were identified as having been engaged -- or involved in this activity. And I think the second part of your question was --
Q: How concerned are you that the activity was underway before -- before -- it involves victims who you haven't identified yet who -- who potentially years -- went to training years ago?
GEN. RICE: I don't, again, have an indication of that to this point. Investigation is ongoing. We will look at that, in terms of when it started. But at this point, our indications were the fall of '09 was the start of this group of activity.
Q: Do you have any explanation for why it would have started then?
GEN. RICE: I don't at this point. Again, it looks like it's localized in one squadron. And what the dynamics were of that squadron and the MTIs in that squadron is unknown. We are conducting a deep set of interviews, but because many of the people who have the information are in the legal process now, we aren't able to interview them and get some of the answers to the questions. So this will be an ongoing process to pull this apart and understand what happened.
Q: Yes, I'm going to follow up on David's -- excuse me -- question about the 31 identified victims so far. Can you give us any information about where they are now? Are they all still in the Air Force? And are all of them receiving treatment? And, sorry, Chris Carroll from Stars and Stripes.
GEN. RICE: To my knowledge, they are all still in the Air Force. They would be, because they would have either a four- or a six-year commitment to the Air Force, so it would be very unusual that they would -- that they would leave. And they are scattered throughout the Air Force, so they've completed their -- in many cases, their training program and are performing duties out in the Air Force.
So as we have conducted these investigations and identified them, we've gone through an extensive effort to find out where they're located, contact them, and offer them the fullest array of support that we can for victims in those cases I described earlier.
Q: Yes, Jim Miklaszewski, NBC. Is it Major General Woodward is --
GEN. RICE: Yes.
Q: OK. How would you describe -- is it a review, an investigation? What is she doing exactly? And there were reports that several other bases were identified as potential problem spots. Do you have a total number for that?
GEN. RICE: I'll answer both questions. What she is conducting is an investigation into the actions that we have taken internally as a command thus far. So we took a series of actions to both deal with the immediate situation and to look at more systemic issues.
So one of her charges is to look at what we've done and to ensure that what we have done makes sense in the larger scheme of things and to also look at our own guidance and regulations and to ensure that we were following them in the execution of basic military training.
In addition --
Q: (off mic) the Air Force reaction (off mic)
GEN. RICE: She's looking into my command's actions -- reactions to what we did, one. And then, secondarily, I've asked her to look at all of the available information about other cases, situations where something similar has happened and to ensure that we have left no stone unturned in our approach to this and to provide me with recommendations on areas that we may have not looked that we may look at in the future to additionally shore up and strengthen our ability to confront this issue in the future.
Q: You look at all the indications -- implications about some similar things that have happened. Is that in addition (off mic)
GEN. RICE: In other training environments. So in other settings, in --
Q: (off mic)
GEN. RICE: No. I'm not referring to any specific cases. I'm talking about other institutions that are like ours that may have had similar issues, and reports have been written on those. I've asked her to review all of that literature and all of the reports that have been written and to determine whether there's something more that we can do as we look at this issue.
Q: And just a housekeeping matter. You said 35,000 are trained per year. Do you have a percentage of how many of those would be women?
GEN. RICE: Twenty-two percent.
Q: Twenty-two percent? And are there any indications that there was any sexual misconduct or assaults involving men? Because it has been reported in other services that that has happened.
GEN. RICE: No.
Q: Kristin Davis, Air Force Times. I have two questions. One is involving Vega-Maldonado, who during testimony admitted to having -- (inaudible) -- is there -- I -- I know that he had -- (inaudible) -- immunity, but is there any indication that he may be charged in any of the other cases at this point?
GEN. RICE: No.
Q: And the other question, if you could speak to the timing of the command-directed investigation. This I guess has been going on about a year now. And now this CID is going on. Can you talk about why now?
GEN. RICE: You said that the command-directed investigation has been ongoing for a year?
Q: No, no, I'm sorry. The basically investigation into the sexual assaults have been going on for a year, but this command-directed investigation has just been charged, I guess. Could you speak to the timing of that?
GEN. RICE: Again, we have taken a series of aggressive actions internal to my command, and as I've looked at all of those actions, I felt it was important that I get not just an internal look at this, but also an external look, because I believe that it's possible for us not to see things because we've been so close to it over the past year. So this is an extra step to see if there's anything that we've missed or that we can do that we haven't thought of, not the only step.
Q: What was Vega-Maldonado's rank before he was reduced to airman? And if he -- he has admitted that he assaulted 10 women. Why is he remaining in the Air Force?
GEN. RICE: I believe he was a staff sergeant. We'll double-check that for you. And he has been -- when you are given jail time, you are still in the military as part of that jail time. So he has been serving out his jail time and, as a consequence of that, must remain in the military.
Q: (off mic)
GEN. RICE: And -- and the -- the sentence that is pronounced when someone goes into the legal process and is given a court martial is something that is adjudicated as part of that process.
Q: What is the likelihood that, once he finishes his jail time, that the Air Force will throw him out?
GEN. RICE: I wouldn't speculate on that, but I would say -- so I won't speculate on that. I mean, he will be given a discharge from the Air Force if -- at the termination of his sentence here, if that's the -- if that's the question.
Q: Sir --
Q: Sir, Richard Sisk, the War Report Online. How did these allegations come about? Did the victims come forward? Or in the course of this, did the leadership at some point become aware of it and then initiated it?
GEN. RICE: We had our military training instructors come forward and provide us with information that they overheard from other military training instructors. I described the screening process, the training process that we have for our military training instructors.
At the end of the day, the best line of defense is for the training instructors, in fact, to police themselves. And that's what happened in this case. Some training instructors overheard others who were talking about something that was clearly unacceptable. They came forward. We began to investigate. And that investigation led to other people that we found that were engaged in this activity.
Q: But not the victims themselves, it was other -- other instructors?
GEN. RICE: In the first case, it was the victim herself. In all of the other cases, it was not the victims themselves.
Q: The misconduct allegedly begins, I believe you said, in the fall of '09. When -- when does the leadership become aware? When do the -- when do the other instructors come forward? How long of a period that the leadership is just unaware?
GEN. RICE: June of '09 was the first case that I discussed of the 12, and then November of '09 is when the three military training instructors came forward with the information on the additional cases.
Q: (off mic) let me follow up on that, just make sure I understand the chronology. So in November '09, you had the three military --
GEN. RICE: Yes, I'm sorry. I got -- the year is wrong. So this was '11.
Q: Oh, OK. So just -- just -- because otherwise it makes it sound like you knew -- OK.
GEN. RICE: Yes, so it's -- just to be correct here, June of '11 was the first case where the young lady came forward. And then November of '11 was when the three other cases came under investigation.
Q: But you believe the misconduct goes back to the fall of '09?
GEN. RICE: As we've looked again at the victims, the first case of a victim was the fall of '09.
Q: And I guess, more generally speaking then, it's been eight months since these three instructors came forward to tell you they had overheard things, this was clearly wrong, they're policing themselves? Particularly that 331st squadron, do you feel like you have a handle on the extent of the problem and individuals involved at this point? Or are you -- is that still under review? Could it be worse?
GEN. RICE: We are still under the investigation of both that squadron and the entire basic military training. The number I gave you is the number that we have today. As we have gone through this, some of those cases, it's possible that they could be proven not to have done any wrongdoing. And we may get others.
So we continue this investigation. We are leaving no stone unturned. I'm not minimizing this investigation. In fact, I'm being as aggressive as I can. And we won't stop the investigation until I'm completely satisfied that we've done as thorough a job as we possibly can.
Q: Sir, I just want to clarify. The commander of the 331st is the same commander who has been in place since the misconduct came to light?
GEN. RICE: The previous commander of the 331st, who was in command during the period of time from '09 to this activity has been relieved.
Q: Been relieved?
GEN. RICE: Yes.
Q: When was that?
GEN. RICE: He was relieved last month, or early this -- are we still in June? He was relieved earlier this month.
Q: For what?
GEN. RICE: He was relieved because he was the commander of a unit in which an unacceptable level of misconduct occurred by members of his unit.
Q: I apologize, General, but I'm a little confused. I get November of '11 and June 2011. But the fall of '09, was the Air Force aware of this sexual misconduct and/or sexual assault in the fall of '09? Or is this a case discovered in '11 that dates back to '09?
GEN. RICE: The latter. Discovered in '11. As we started to look at when the victims were victimized, it goes back to the fall of '09.
Q: I would like some clarification about the commander of the 331st. If he has been relieved, does that mean he is -- remains in the Air Force or just relieved of that --
GEN. RICE: He remains in the Air Force, but he's relieved of his command responsibilities.
Q: So where is he now?
GEN. RICE: He is still at Lackland.
Q: At Lackland?
GEN. RICE: Yes.
Q: And what is his role there?
GEN. RICE: He's in administrative hold at this point, pending determination of what his next assignment will be.
Q: Is there an active investigation into anything further that he may have been involved in? Is he under investigation?
GEN. RICE: His entire unit is under investigation, as is the entire basic military training organization.
Q: And is that unit -- if it's under investigation, does that mean they are not involved in training right now?
GEN. RICE: No, they are still involved in training.
Q: They're still involved in training.
GEN. RICE: That's correct.
Q: And again, I go back to -- it's hard for me to imagine that you don't know the name of his commander. What is his name?
GEN. RICE: I've already answered that.
Q: You don't know the name?
GEN. RICE: Yes.
Q: And how many of the trainers -- you said the trainers need to police themselves. What percentage of the trainers are women?
GEN. RICE: Eleven percent.
Q: A small question. What -- how many MTIs are in a squadron?
GEN. RICE: We have a total of 500 MTIs, and each squadron has about 35 to 40.
Q: Are you -- are you considering putting all female training flights under the sole supervision of women?
GEN. RICE: It's a possibility. I haven't made a determination about that yet.
Q: Where are you in that process? Or what factors into that decision?
GEN. RICE: After I review all of the information from all of the investigations, then I will make a determination about the best way forward here.
Q: I understand the nine of the 12 were in the 331st. Of the six that have been charged so far, I know Walker was in the -- I believe it was the 326th. The two most recent charged, where they also in the 331st, Crawford and Smith?
GEN. RICE: Yes.
Q: Sir, you said that after you review all the information, you're going to make a determination of whether it may be you might assign only women drill instructors or women MTIs to trainees. Has that ever happened in the past? I mean, when did such a -- or has it always been that you have -- that you had male instructors over --
GEN. RICE: We've never had a case where we've only had female instructors over female trainees, so we've always had a mixture. And that has a lot to do with how every week we get a new group of trainees that come to basic military training, and we have instructors that have just completed their last class, and we assign instructors to those classes as we form them, as the trainees come in every week. And so I will look at whether or not we need to both hire more female MTIs and whether or not we need to adjust our process to have only female MTIs over female flights.
Q: What would be the benefit -- what would be the benefits, looking at it right now, of having only female MTIs with female trainees?
GEN. RICE: I'm not sure there is one. So, again, I haven't made that determination yet. We'll make that at a later date.
Q: (off mic) I don't want to assume -- or maybe you said earlier, but of the 12 cases of suspected misconduct involving MTIs, are those 12 MTIs, are they all men?
GEN. RICE: Yes. The 12 MTIs are all men -- are all males, uh-huh.
Q: (off mic) Reuters. You said that you were going to re-examine the way that you did hiring for the MTIs. How specifically can you group characteristics or past history to find something, whether or not these trainers would eventually engage in misconduct? What specifically are you going to ask or look into to see if this is something you can --
GEN. RICE: Again, premature to determine how we will change it. We have a very rigorous process now that involves records review, that involves a screening for psychological traits. It's done both with a written test and an interview with someone from our behavioral sciences department.
And so we've got a pretty strong screen in place, but I think in terms of being thorough, we have to look back and determine whether or not there's something more that we can do in that part of the process.
Q: Is there any indication yet that there was similar misconduct at any of the other training facilities in the Air Force?
GEN. RICE: No indication at this point.
Q: And, quite frankly, I mean, you know, you're head of the training unit. You know, these are all your charges. What was your personal reaction when you heard about these cases?
GEN. RICE: Well, extremely disappointed, again, that this would happen in an environment that we very much want to be a safe and secure environment for every young person that comes in. And any case of misconduct by our trainees is extremely disappointing to me.
But at the same time, I took it as very important for me to focus on this and to ensure that we are doing everything we can to continue to strengthen that environment and to weed out any unacceptable behavior. And so over this period of time, this has been at the very top of my personal list of items that I am paying personal attention to and working to ensure that we are thoroughly investigating it, holding those accountable, and taking care of our victims.
Q: It seems maybe -- the facts point to this, but I just want to get your statement on it. Have you concluded that this was an organized -- organized is maybe the wrong word -- but a -- that the MTIs collaborated in assaulting women, that they talked about, that they planned it? Is that what was going on here? Together -- I mean, in other words, it wasn't individual. It wasn't a series of individual activity. It was a coordinated activity?
GEN. RICE: I'm not prepared yet to talk about exactly what we know. We are still looking at that. And again, a lot of the information is still unfolding, in terms of exactly what happened in this one unit. That's the subject of a very intense investigation, and I'm not prepared at this point to talk about what we know.
Q: You said it was in June of '11, three MTIs come forward. Were they male or female?
GEN. RICE: A combination.