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Air Force relieves commander over sex scandal

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** FILE ** In this March 2, 2012, photo, Air Force Col. Glenn Palmer, commander of the 737th Training Group at Lackland AFB, speaks to trainees in San Antonio. Officials tell the Associated Press that the Air Force has relieved Palmer, a top commander at Lackland Air Force base, from his position in the wake of wake of a widening sex scandal. (AP Photo/The San Antonio Express-News, William Luther)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A widening sex scandal at Lackland Air Force Base has led to the dismissal of the top commander who oversees basic training for every new American airman, officials said Friday.

Col. Glenn Palmer was commander of basic training for the 737th training group at the Texas base, where more than a dozen military instructors in the past year have been investigated or charged with sexually assaulting recruits. Officials familiar with the decision said Palmer has been relieved from those duties, speaking on condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet public.

The officials said there was no indication Palmer was facing any criminal charges. In all, six instructors have been charged with offenses ranging from rape to adultery.

Investigators say more than three dozen female trainees have been victimized by male instructors at Lackland, where approximately 35,000 airmen graduate each year.

About one in five recruits are female, while most instructors are male. The most serious allegations involved an instructor sentenced to 20 years in prison last month after being convicted of raping one female recruit and sexually assaulting several others.

Before Staff Sgt. Luis Walker was sentenced in a military courtroom at Lackland, one of his alleged victims testified that the abuse left her shaken while deployed in Afghanistan and made her “a little bit more scared of everything.”

The Air Force also was set Friday to announce that Col. Eric Axelbank, commander of the entire 37th Training Wing at Lackland, also would be changing command next month. Officials told AP that Axelbank’s move was part of a normal change of command and was not related to the sex scandal.

Palmer’s dismissal comes just months after the Air Force increased his profile as the allegations mounted. He invited reporters in June to a daylong tour of Lackland, offering a rare glimpse into the base’s academy for military training instructors and making his top lieutenants available for questions. It was as intended to show the public that the Air Force had nothing to hide.

Palmer also began delivering a “neighborhood watch” speech to every new busload of recruits, telling them to immediately report sexual assaults or any hint of sexual harassment.

The first allegations began a year ago with those levied against Walker. As more trainees spoke up and the accusations became widespread, Lackland took the unusual step of halting training for an entire day in May to survey about 5,900 trainees. On a base that graduates a new class of airman every Friday for 50 of the 52 weeks in the year, Palmer called the training shut down so unprecedented that he didn’t even know whether it was possible.

Palmer isn’t the first Lackland commander removed since the scandal unfolded. Axelbank in June relieved Col. Mike Paquette, commander of the 331st Training Squadron, for what a military attorney described as a loss of confidence in Paquette’s leadership.

Lackland has about 475 military training instructors, who are the Air Force equivalent of Army drill sergeants and are assigned to turn raw recruits into airman over the course of eight weeks. More than three dozen instructors — including those facing criminal charges — have been removed from Lackland in the past year, but the Air Force says the majority of those dismissals were unrelated to the sex accusations.

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Baldor reported from Washington.

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