Colonel seeks to protect recruits Buddy system, fliers, open doors among Aberdeen efforts

November 17, 1996|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

In a stack of anonymous student surveys, Lt. Col. J. Donald Hogge came across the first hints of one of the worst sexual misconduct scandals in the Army's history.

Soon after he assumed command of the bigger of two battalions at the Aberdeen Proving Ground school, Hogge read through the routine questionnaires and noticed something disturbing:

Too many young soldiers had circled "yes" when asked if they had been sexually harassed or subjected to vulgar, obscene or humiliating remarks by their instructors.

The pattern that emerged was just the beginning of the allegations of sexual harassment and rape that have shaken Aberdeen's Ordnance Center and School.

Today, as the Army investigates scores of additional reports that trainers at Aberdeen and other bases have abused their authority over female recruits, Hogge is trying to come up with better ways to protect his own.

"I don't think any of this is bad if it makes a guy stop and think,'Maybe I shouldn't do that. Maybe I shouldn't use that term,' " he said.

An 18-year Army veteran who started in the infantry and rose through the ranks, Hogge arrived in late June, around the time a female student from the other battalion accused a drill instructor of writing her love letters and making unwanted advances. Hogge soon discovered problems in his own unit: After he ordered follow-up sessions to the student surveys, a female recruit complained about her instructor and gave examples of other misconduct.

Since then, eight drill sergeants and instructors in his 16th Ordnance Battalion have been suspended for alleged misconduct ranging from lewd jokes to improper sexual intimacy.

At the 143rd Ordnance Battalion, 20 minutes down the road in Edgewood, the situation is more serious: a captain and drill sergeant have been charged with rape, three sergeants have been charged with having prohibited relationships, and seven others have been suspended for possible misconduct.

While the rape charges have drawn the most publicity, it is the kind of harassment reported to Hogge that soldiers and officers described as common at the sprawling Army post.

In the post exchange and parking lot last weekend, for example, male teen-age recruits boasted of their weekend exploits and made sexual jokes. Some women ignored them; others flirted.

On their nightly rounds, drill instructors are called on to be disciplinarians and counselors; they break up fights and console soldiers fresh out of basic training about breakups with high-school sweethearts.

Many of the trainers removed from their teaching duties are accused of making unwanted, sexually suggestive overtures. One commented on smelling a recruit's perfume. Another told a trainee, "You sure look good doing those jumping jacks."

One drill instructor had been investigated just months earlier for an improper romance with a trainee, but the case apparently was never substantiated, Hogge said. Military rules forbid any personal or sexual relationships between servicemen and women of different rank because of the power imbalance.

"The dumb ones make improper comments in front of other people," Hogge said, "but I'd say the majority of it is covert."

137 women in battalion

In his five months in command, Hogge has also disciplined male recruits for harassing women in their classes. Only 137 of Hogge's 944 soldiers learning to repair firearms, weld equipment and maintain tanks are women.

One soldier, who was subsequently discharged from the Army, repeatedly taunted a shy, serious female classmate by saying he wanted to have sex with her "to straighten you up." She tried to ignore him, but after she could no longer concentrate in her electronics class, the woman complained to higher-ups.

"They come out of an environment where they are used to hearing, 'Hey babe,' " Hogge said. "Well that's inappropriate, and we have to teach them that. They can say, 'Hey soldier,' but female soldiers are not called 'hey babe.' "

Some female recruits put up with lewd comments because they feared reprisal or just wanted to graduate and leave the troubles at Aberdeen behind. But others never turned in their instructors because they were used to such remarks, Hogge said.

"It takes a while to educate everyone. You hear girls say, 'Oh yeah, he said that, but that's normal,' " he said.

The signs of Aberdeen's new efforts to protect its young recruits are everywhere.

At the drill instructors' offices, pairs of soldiers wait together to sign their final papers before graduation. The school now requires they go everywhere together in pairs, a formal version of the time-honored "buddy system." And Hogge has instructed all his drill sergeants to keep their office doors open, even if they are offering advice to a homesick recruit, to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

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