Basic trainees line up for an early-morning formation at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. A sex scandal has rocked the base. (Tech Sgt. Cecilio M. Ricardo Jr. / Air Force)
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KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. — The alleged abuse of a group of at least 50 trainees by their military training instructor would often begin when Tech. Sgt. Bobby Bass sent his fellow trainer away.
Tech. Sgt. James McBride, a new MTI who was being certified by Bass in fall 2009, said Bass would tell him to run errands or go home early. Then, alone with his flight of all-male trainees, Bass allegedly ordered them to perform humiliating and sometimes painful tasks: pushups in a steamy bathroom where toilets were filled with feces and urine. Bending over naked while crowded in a shower stall with dozens of fellow trainees, their bodies touching. Physical training in their underwear. Rubbing muscle cream on their genitals.
During a court-martial that began April 15, 20 former trainees recounted three hellish months of basic training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, where they said they chose to suffer in silence rather than risk having to stay there longer.
Bass, an MTI from April 2006 to August 2010, faces multiple counts of cruelty, assault, wrongful sexual contact, dereliction of duty and violating lawful regulations. He is also accused of forcible sodomy against a man he supervised while deployed to Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan, in 2007 and 2008.
The case against Bass is part of a sexual misconduct scandal that began at Lackland two years ago and involves for the first time alleged male victims. It is the only MTI court-martial to be tried at Keesler, where Bass is a command post controller.
Lackland investigators first learned of the alleged misconduct after authorities began investigating a forcible sodomy accusation against Bass last April, said Col. Polly Kenny, an Air Force attorney.
Bass’ defense argued unsuccessfully that the incident, which took place during a deployment to Kyrgyzstan, should be tried separately from the basic training allegations because the two are unrelated, Kenny said.
In opening statements April 17, lead prosecutor Capt. Matthew Neil painted a picture of a former MTI who, while deployed, hid liquor in a mouthwash bottle, drank with a man under his supervision and sexually assaulted him while he slept.
Bass took “satisfaction in imposing his power on young male airmen,” Neil said.
Senior defense counsel Capt. Antoinette Quinn told jurors the 20 former trainees gave inconsistent accounts of what happened during basic training and questioned the motives of the man who accused Bass of forcible sodomy, an airman who received a less-than-honorable discharge for drug use.
Pattern of alleged abuse
The atmosphere in Bass and McBride’s basic training flight would shift after Bass had been alone with the men. The dormitory was hot, and trainees were sweaty and distraught.
At one point, Kenny said, recalling McBride’s testimony, he asked Bass why he so often asked him to leave. “Bass replied, ‘It’s for your own protection.’”
One by one, the former trainees — about half of them no longer in the Air Force — testified about what happened when McBride was away.
In one shower incident, several recounted on the witness stand, Bass ordered the flight of at least 50 trainees to remove all their clothes, get into an 8-by-10-foot shower space and, bodies touching, reach as high as they could and bend over and touch the wall. Some blushed as they recalled the details.
“I would not have stripped down naked and touched the same wall with the entire flight if I hadn’t been ordered to by an instructor,” one testified when asked whether he thought the incident was out of line.
In another bathroom incident, trainees were ordered to perform pushups while hot water flowed from showers. Trainees who defecated and urinated in the toilets during the PT were told not to flush.
Two recalled being called into Bass’ office and ordered to apply Icy Hot to their genitals. One testified he was not allowed to wash it off and was in pain for hours. The other former trainee said he was told to apply the muscle cream or risk having basic training extended. He said he chose the Icy Hot.
At least five of the former recruits testified that their fellow trainees in leadership positions were ordered to do pushups in their underwear while the rest of the group laughed at and mocked them.
Bass told one trainee he “smelled like a horse’s ass” and ordered him to take showers repeatedly. Afterward, he was told to shave all his body hair except for his arms and legs.
After the incident, the trainee was “a different person. He didn’t speak to anyone for three days,” a fellow trainee, now a senior airman, testified. “We all saw him before he shaved and we saw him after. You could tell by his facial expressions he wasn’t all there.”
Bass ordered the same recruit who took multiple showers to write a breakup letter to his girlfriend, he said. Bass told him to address it to the girl, seal it and give it to him; Bass said he would mail it if the recruit didn’t follow his orders.
One of the alleged victims said Bass slammed him into an office wall. Another described being called into Bass’ flight office. Bass told him to get on his face — into a pushup position. The trainee began doing pushups next to Bass’ bed, he said. Each time he came to the rest position, Bass kicked him in the sternum with the toe of his steel-toed boot. On a pain scale from one to 10, he testified, it was an 8.5.
When a recruit complained of shin splints, Bass allegedly taunted him, grabbing and squeezing his shin and asking: “Do you have shin splints?” Bass did this three times until the trainee answered “no.”
The trainee threatened to commit suicide after the incident, testified an airman who remembered the event because he had to perform suicide-watch duty for him. The next time the airman saw the trainee, he had been transferred to a medical flight.
The airman does not recall the trainee’s name, and the Air Force has not been able to identify him, Kenny said.
As with the dozens of victims identified in the Lackland scandal, which began to unfold in June 2011, none of the 20 trainees who testified at the Bass court-martial went to authorities, Kenny said. They instead gave their accounts to investigators who sought them out years later. Most said they didn’t make a report because they feared having to repeat BMT and “they didn’t want to stay in basic training any longer than was necessary,” Kenny said.
Brian Miller, policy manager over basic training instructors at Lackland, said there was one complaint box posted in the dining hall. There were student complaints registered in 2009, he said, but there also was apprehension in doing so, he said.
“The box was in full view of all,” Miller said. “It took a lot of courage” to submit a comment.
That has changed in the wake of the scandal. Comment boxes are now out of sight.
The Air Force has tightened the MTI screening process, added positions and ensured closer supervision and oversight. Instructors are now required to report any suspicions of misconduct.
Bass is the 17th MTI to stand court-martial for alleged misconduct. All but one — whose case was thrown out when a judge ruled evidence was seized illegally — have ended in convictions on at least some charges they faced.
The Bass case kicked off a year ago when a former airman, identified in charging documents as Victim 1, reported he was sexually assaulted at Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan, four years before.
The man testified he was deployed to Manas within a few months of arriving at his first duty station at Joint Base Andrews, Md. He met Bass at Manas; after drinking two beers one night, the man said Bass went to his room and returned with a Listerine bottle filled with alcohol. The man said he remembers drinking two capfuls. He testified that when he awoke about 3 a.m., Bass was sodomizing him.
Victim 1 said he started using marijuana after he returned to the United States to cope with what had happened to him. After he was discharged from the Air Force, his drug use intensified. He eventually moved to California to live with his grandmother, whom he confided in. With her encouragement, he sought treatment through the Veterans Affairs Department, which told him to report the assault to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
The report led to a tip about Bass’ alleged mistreatment of basic trainees, Kenny said.
Because the former airman received a less-than-honorable discharge, he is not entitled to medical assistance from the Air Force, she said. He is receiving interim treatment from the VA while a claim to receive future benefits is pending.
In cross-examination, the defense tried to shoot holes in the man’s testimony, portraying him as someone using the criminal charge as leverage to get military benefits.
If convicted of all the charges, Bass could spend the rest of his life in prison.
So far, 15 military training instructors have been convicted in a sexual misconduct scandal that began at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in summer 2011, triggering an extensive investigation into an overhaul of basic military training. The latest case, against Tech. Sgt. Bobby Bass, is different in that he is accused of assaulting male airmen.
June 2011: Recruit from 326th Training Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland transfers to another squadron, tells commander that fellow female recruit was sexually assaulted by her MTI, Staff Sgt. Luis Walker. Walker is removed from his post; investigation begins.
Nov. 28, 2011: Walker charged with raping, sexually assaulting or having unprofessional contact with 10 recruits.
April 6, 2012: Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado pleads guilty to having an inappropriate relationship with a trainee, sentenced to 90 days in jail.
June 20, 2012: Lt. Col. Michael Paquette, commander of the 331st training wing where a number of MTIs have been implicated, is removed.
June 22, 2012: Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr., commander of Air Education and Training Command, directs an external investigation by Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward of all AETC initial and technical training units, to be completed in 60 days.
June 28, 2012: Rice holds a Pentagon news conference after several days of meetings on Capitol Hill; he announces 31 known victims and 12 cases that date to 2009. Nine of those 12 are from the 331st Training Squadron.
July 20, 2012: Jury finds Walker guilty on all 28 counts he faced, sentences him to 20 years and a dishonorable discharge.
July 26, 2012: Air Force announces the number of alleged victims has grown to 34. Fifteen MTIs now accused of improper conduct or contact with trainees. One has received nonjudicial punishment for an unprofessional relationship that did not involve physical contact. Two have been adjudicated; four are awaiting courts-martial, and eight remain under investigation.
Aug. 1, 2012: Tech. Sgt. Christopher Smith is found guilty of trying to start a relationship with a trainee, but is cleared of making sexual advances on another trainee and obstruction of justice. He gets 30 days’ confinement and is reduced to airman first class.
Sept. 11, 2012: Staff Sgt. Kwinton Estacio is found guilty of obstruction and violating a lawful order, but not guilty of wrongful sexual contact; he is sentenced to one year in confinement and a bad conduct discharge.
Sept. 24, 2012: Staff Sgt. Jason Manko pleads guilty to trying to start a relationship with a trainee; he is sentenced to 45 days in jail with a reduction to airman first class, but is not discharged.
Nov. 14, 2012: Rice releases Woodward’s findings and announces significant changes underway at BMT, including mandatory instructor duty, increased requirements, more MTIs and shorter days and tours of duty.
Jan. 3, 2013: Staff Sgt. Donald Davis is found guilty of a wrongful relationship, but not guilty of aggravated sexual contact. He is sentenced to three months of hard labor, reduction to E-3 and a bad conduct discharge.
Jan. 23, 2013: In a House Armed Services Committee hearing, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh testifies that MTIs who have inappropriate relationships with trainees should be kicked out of the Air Force.
Feb. 14, 2013: Staff Sgt. Craig LeBlanc is found guilty of relationships with trainees, adultery, obstruction and other charges. He is cleared of the most serious charge of aggravated sexual assault and is sentenced to 30 days in jail, reduction to E-1 and a dishonorable discharge.
Feb. 21, 2013: The case against Tech. Sgt. Samuel Wicks, accused of indecent conduct and nonphysical relationships with three tech trainees, is dismissed due to illegally obtained evidence.
March 4, 2013: Staff Sgt. Ryan Deraas pleads guilty to unprofessional relationships with five tech trainees, maltraining, and assault and battery of two basic trainees. He is sentenced to three months of jail time but is not discharged.
March 16, 2013: Staff Sgt. Eddy Soto is convicted of rape, sexual assault, developing an unprofessional relationship, falsifying an official statement and adultery. He is sentenced to four years in prison and is dishonorably discharged.
March 21, 2013: Master Sgt. Jamey Crawford is found guilty of adultery, sexual relationships with trainees and falsifying official statements. He is sentenced to seven months confinement, two months of hard labor, reduction to E-4 and a bad conduct discharge.
March 29, 2013: Tech. Sgt. Jonathan Croskey is found guilty of having an unprofessional relationship with a tech trainee, adultery and obstruction of justice. He is sentenced to 30 days confinement and reduction to E-4 but is not discharged.
April 2, 2013: Staff Sgt. William F. Romero is found guilty of having unprofessional relationships with four tech trainees and adultery. He is sentenced to 60 days in confinement, 30 days of hard labor while restricted to base, reduction to E-2; a forfeiture of $900. He is not discharged.
April 11, 2013: Staff Sgt. John W. Gerbick Jr. is found guilty of having unprofessional relationships with two tech trainees, adultery and falsifying a statement. He is sentenced to 45 days of confinement, 30 days of hard labor and restriction to base, reduction to E3 and a forfeiture of $600. He is not discharged.
April 16, 2013: Court-martial begins at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., for Tech. Sgt. Bobby Bass, charged with sodomy and multiple counts of dereliction of duty, cruelty and assault. He faces up to life in prison.
April 17, 2013: Master Sgt. Joseph Thornberry is found guilty of having an unprofessional relationship with a basic trainee, adultery and obstruction of justice. He is sentenced to 60 days of confinement, reduction to E-5 and forfeiture of $1,000 in pay but is not discharged.
Editor’s note: Kristin Davis is an Air Force Times staff writer. Karen Nelson reports for the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss.