Aberdeen allegations kept quiet for weeks Army delayed telling public to protect probe, avoid media glare

November 12, 1996|By Tom Bowman and JoAnna Daemmrich | Tom Bowman and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Jay Apperson, Jim Bock and Lisa Respers contributed to this article.

The accusations of Army trainers sexually exploiting their young female recruits at Aberdeen Proving Ground became public just last week, but drew serious attention from Army officials for much longer.

Exactly two months ago, military investigators jailed a drill sergeant at the U.S. Ordnance Center and School on allegations of raping three of his trainees.

Army officials quickly realized that the case went beyond one instructor, as more women came forward with allegations of lewd remarks, unwanted sexual advances and improper romances with their superiors.

"It was clear this was growing bigger than we thought," Ed Starnes, an Aberdeen school spokesman, said yesterday. "More kept coming out."

But the Army didn't make the charges public until last week, partly out of fear of the news media glare on an investigation that had expanded to other bases, he said.

"We've been ready to go forward -- it was more a matter of when are we comfortable that we're not going to harm the investigation," he said. "Now we have 30 or 40 news media following you to the PX, trying to talk to you at the barracks. We felt if we did this during the investigation, it might intimidate some of the people."

The Army is expected to bring charges of sexual misconduct as early as today against several soldiers stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Maj. Steve Rego, an Army spokesman, confirmed that criminal investigators were pursuing separate allegations, ranging from fraternization to rape, against several supervisors.

By 4 p.m. yesterday, an Army hot line set up at Aberdeen to handle complaints had logged 1,999 calls, of which 246 were referred to criminal investigators. Fifty-six callers had complaints alleging some form of harassment at Aberdeen, while 89 others involved other military installations.

Meanwhile, Dennis Courtland Hayes, general counsel of the NAACP, said he had agreed to meet today or tomorrow with Janice Grant, Harford County branch president, and possibly one of the sergeants charged to discuss concerns that black soldiers are being unfairly targeted.

"The concerns raised by the branch president and others is whether equal dispensation of justice is occurring," Hayes said. "Apparently there is a feeling that perhaps black soldiers are being scapegoated. That's all I know. I don't know what the facts are."

So far, 20 Aberdeen trainers have been suspended and assigned to other duties. Three of them -- a captain and two sergeants -- could face courts-martial on charges ranging from improper relations with a recruit to vicious threats and repeated rapes. Two other sergeants face discipline for allegations of behaving improperly with trainees, including writing a love letter.

"It's a great, great tragedy," Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

"Our task now is to ensure that we find out exactly just how widespread it is and bring to justice all those who should be brought to justice," he said. "But it is also important to put it in perspective," he added, saying 1.5 million Americans in the military should not "be painted with the same brush."

Aberdeen's school provides recruits with three to eight weeks of advanced training, teaching them to maintain tanks, weld equipment, repair generators and the other critical, if less-glamorous, jobs in the Army. The program has 1,367 recruits, of which 276 are women. On Sept. 18, as allegations of sexual misconduct spread, the school called in a training commander from another Army base to do an assessment.

Col. Raymond L. Rodon, the brigade commander of Fort Lee, Va., began talking to female soldiers but had to stop when he ran into the same women being interviewed by criminal investigators. He left a report calling for immediate changes.

One of them was to require new recruits to go everywhere in pairs, a formal version of the Army's time-honored "buddy system." The school also instituted rape-prevention classes for all trainees within 24 hours after they arrive, and brought in a team from Fort Jackson, S.C., to give drill sergeants and instructors more lessons against sexual harassment.

Capt. Derrick Robertson, Staff Sgt. Delmar Simpson and Sgt. Nathanael C. Beach, who face the most serious charges, are black, although a breakdown on the races of the remaining 17 who were suspended was not available.

Grant, of the Harford County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said she had received calls over a period of several months alleging that black drill sergeants were being unjustly accused of things they had not done. But she said she did not receive enough facts to warrant approaching Aberdeen officials.

"We're conducting a thorough and complete investigation," said Capt. Craig Minnick, an Army lawyer. "Race is simply not an issue."

Rodon is expected to return this month to continue his review.

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