Army heeds the lessons of Tailhook Quick response averts suspicion of cover-up

November 18, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Army's handling of the alleged sexual harassment of trainees at an Aberdeen Proving Ground school suggests it has learned from the Navy's mistakes during the 1991 Tailhook scandal.

But while the Army may have learned lessons from Tailhook, it faces an even graver, more troublesome and widespread crisis than the Navy did five years ago.

Tailhook related basically to a single night's debauchery, whereas the allegations at Aberdeen cover the period between summers of 1995 and 1996.

Tailhook took place off-base, in a Las Vegas hotel and was organized not by the Navy but by the aviators association. The women assaulted were of various ranks, many of them peer officers of the men. The Aberdeen allegations involve activities on a military base by Army trainers and the young women trainees under their direct supervision.

At Tailhook, the worst offenses involved lewd acts and groping women as they ran a gantlet of drunken aviators lining one of the hotel's corridors. At Aberdeen, the charges include rape and sodomy.

Tailhook involved a single group of Navy fliers. Reports from Army bases all over the country suggest that the abuse of female trainees stretches well beyond Aberdeen.

"The events [at Aberdeen] are worse and more widespread. That's the bad side," said Charles Moskos, a leading military sociologist who chairs the Inter-University Seminar on the Armed Forces and Society.

"The good side is that the Army is trying to expose it and trace it down wherever it occurs on the planet," he said.

At Aberdeen, three Army trainers -- a captain and two drill sergeants -- with the U.S. Ordnance Center and School face charges ranging from rape and sodomy to an improper relationship with female trainees. They are expected to be court-martialed. Two others face administrative penalties. At least 15 other instructors at Aberdeen have been suspended for possible misconduct.

The Navy's mishandling of the scandal at the aviators' annual Tailhook convention in Las Vegas included a perceived cover-up, initial denial of any servicewide problem, and a sort of "boys will be boys" reaction rather than immediate outrage that more than 80 women had been harassed during the three-day event.

This allowed the scandal to drag on endlessly so that even today it casts a shadow across the Navy's image.

"Hindsight is always helpful, and the Army has the benefit of seeing what went wrong in Tailhook," said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, a Washington group that frequently represents victims of sexual harassment.

The Army, in contrast, has gone public quickly with the allegations at Aberdeen, is conducting an investigation to see if the problem is servicewide, and has paraded its top brass to assert zero tolerance of harassment in the service.

"The Army's response has been very dramatic," said David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland College Park.

"The more diligent we are in pursuing this, the faster we will get this behind us," said Lt. Col. Bill Harkey, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon.

Said another officer involved in managing the crisis, who asked not to be named: "If we hadn't come forward and allowed this thing out and let the world know what we found, we were going to be accused of cover-up."

As examples of the Army's positive response, Segal and Duff Campbell cited:

The speed with which charges, ranging from rape and sodomy to an improper relationship, have been made against the three trainers at Aberdeen;

Establishment of a toll-free crisis line for complaints of sexual harassment and abuse at Aberdeen and other military bases; and Public statements by the Army secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Army chief of staff that the case would be thoroughly investigated, the guilty punished and the zero-toleration policy strictly imposed.

In one extraordinary move, the Army is interviewing every female trainee who passed through Aberdeen during the past two years.

"It would be as if a professor had harassed a student at the university, and then the university went out and interviewed every student who had taken his courses for the past two years. That is unheard of," said military sociologist Moskos, who is a Northwestern University professor.

Still, Moskos sees another test the Army must pass if it is to show that it has learned the lessons of Tailhook.

"In Tailhook, no female officer who misbehaved was reprimanded or sanctioned, sending a terrible message to the fleet, meaning women were held to a different standard," he said.

If the Army fails to prosecute female soldiers found to have engaged willingly in sexual misconduct at Aberdeen, "the lessons from Tailhook have not been fully learned," he said.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and a critic of double standards for women in uniform, said women who made false accusations against men at Aberdeen or on other Army bases in the wake of the scandal should be prosecuted.

One of the worst examples from Tailhook, she said, was of a woman who lied about being gang-raped to avoid telling her male friend about her liaison with another officer. The Navy took no action against her after she confessed to the lie.

Cautioning against a rush to judgment that would "create expectations of heads on a platter," Donnelly said:

"I think the Army needs to calm down, take a deep breath, and make sure these investigations are scrupulously and fairly done.

"We don't know what happened at Aberdeen. You have got to give it time. The faster you do it, the more likely you are to violate the constitutional rights of the people involved."

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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