Rank has its rights, duties Aberdeen allegations are potent reminder of recruits' vulnerability

November 10, 1996|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF lTC Sun staff writers Ronnie Greene, JoAnna Daemmrich, Lisa Respers, Jay Apperson, Dan Thanh Dang, Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and Robert A. Erlandson contributed to this article.

When they go through the gates of their first military base, many are taking their first trip away from home.

Wide-eyed and anxious, they have left behind a familiar world of video games and high school proms for a grueling existence of crisp uniforms and close haircuts. They have exchanged their parents for in-your-face drill instructors who scream at them in a foreign language they have exactly eight weeks to master.

They are the Army's fresh recruits. And many of them are women, bringing to their military lives an added vulnerability to the threats and promises of the older male superiors they are taught to obey.

As the Army struggled last week to determine the facts and cope with the fallout of what may be the worst sexual harassment and assault scandal in its history, the public was reminded again of the ways in which the power of military rank can be abused.

"We understand the recruits have a certain innocence, a certain vulnerability, a certain gullibility," said L. Douglas Cook, an Army veteran and spokesman for the service's largest boot camp program, at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. "You couple that with fatigue and loneliness, and they really can be at risk of being exploited."

Most of the young female recruits who have come forward at Aberdeen Proving Ground in recent weeks to charge their trainers with offenses ranging from harassment to rape probably trained at Fort Jackson, which gives eight-week basic training annually to more than 35,000 recruits, 35 percent of them women.

After basic training, the recruits are scattered to Aberdeen and scores of other bases around the country for up to eight more weeks of "advanced individual training" in their specialty.

At Aberdeen's Ordnance Center and School, the women who say they were harassed and assaulted were learning to maintain tanks, weld equipment, repair generators and master the myriad support jobs that make the Army run.

As in basic training, their immediate instructors were the Army's drill sergeants, a fabled species feared at the time of training and occasionally beloved in retrospect.

To the recruits assigned to him -- or her -- drill sergeants are, as one Army colonel put it, "God Almighty Jr." They are the first embodiment they experience of military power and one they're likely to remember all their lives.

"They have to trust the drill sergeant," said Cook, who enlisted in 1965 and served in Vietnam. "So we hold the drill sergeants to an especially rigorous standard of behavior."

As the trainees rise at 4:30 a.m. and hustle through a day of physical testing and endless memorization, it is the drill sergeants who urge them on, issue high-decibel corrections for every misstep and offer the balm of praise to those who earn it.

As the trainees slide down a rope dangling from a 50-foot tower, do more push-ups and sit-ups than they ever believed possible, or trudge along a two-mile course weighed down by military gear, it is the drill sergeants who watch over them.

So to those in the Army, the fact that those accused of sexual misconduct at Aberdeen were drill sergeants -- and a captain who supervised drill sergeants -- was the greatest betrayal.

The recruits "should be able to have a sense of trust and confidence as if you're their priest," said Sgt. 1st Class Amanda McKenzie, a former drill sergeant now stationed at Fort Monroe in Virginia, headquarters of the Training and Doctrine Command of which Aberdeen's ordnance school is part. "You have that person's life in your hands. They depend on you."

Said Col. Patrick A. Toffler, director for policy at the U.S. Military Academy and an expert on women's issues: "It's the absolute antithesis of taking care of your soldiers." Toffler discussed the news from Aberdeen with the West Point cadets in his systems engineering class Friday and found them distressed, he said.

"They understand the reason for West Point is to lead by example, and all of us like to think we're going to behave by a professional ethic and professional standard," Toffler said.

Maj. Karen Judkins, an Army lawyer at Fort Monroe, was stunned by the statements of Aberdeen's female trainees as she reviewed them over the past few weeks.

As a female officer who rose through the Army ranks unfettered by sexual harassment, she took the allegations personally, she said. It was the drill sergeants' alleged abuse of power that "makes this situation so abhorrent," she said.

"It's just astounding and awful," Judkins said Friday. "We just didn't think this kind of thing happened anymore."

In fact, a survey last year of women in all branches of the military -- where the percentage of women has increased from 2.5 percent in 1973 to 13 percent today -- found that sexual harassment is widespread. Fifty-five percent of women surveyed said they had experienced some form of harassment -- ranging from offensive comments to rape -- in the previous 12 months.

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