'Fraternization' extends beyond criminal definition Each service has own customs, regulations governing relationships

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

WASHINGTON -- Fraternization -- it is the most common complaint being heard over the phones in the crisis center at Aberdeen Proving Ground after the alleged sexual abuse of trainees there.

But what exactly is it?

Military law defines it as a relationship between a commissioned or warrant officer and an enlisted subordinate that violates military custom and is prejudicial to good order and discipline.

But beyond that basic criminal definition are many variables. It is not solely a gender-based offense, although improper sexual relations are the way it usually surfaces.

Each of the services, with their different traditions and cultures, has its own customs and regulations governing relationships between senior and junior ranks. Violations of these regulations are breaches of discipline and may be punished.

The Navy and the Marines, with their seafaring roots, are the most restrictive on officers mixing and mingling with enlisted sailors.

"This goes back to being at sea when you had a handful of officers trying to control a larger group of men who could rise up in mutiny and take over the ship," said one military legal expert, who requested anonymity. "You kept them under control with extreme respect and iron discipline, and that required absolute, Draconian separation."

The Air Force, the youngest and least tradition-bound of the services, has the most relaxed attitude. It does not have a blanket prohibition on officers dating enlisted personnel.

"In the Air Force we are probably about as loosey-goosey about relationships as anybody," said an Air Force officer, who asked not to be identified. "The customary difference between officer and enlisted in the Air Force is much less than in the other services, but we don't allow overfamiliarity."

Somewhere between the two is the Army, whose rules against fraternization are laid out in an official pamphlet titled "Relationships Between Soldiers of Different Rank."

One paragraph deals with the relationship between a noncommissioned officer and an advanced individual trainee -- the status of the women allegedly abused by trainers at the U.S. Ordnance Center and School at Aberdeen. The alleged victims had finished basic training and were taking technical courses.

According to David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, College Park, trainees are at their most vulnerable during advanced individual courses.

"Aberdeen is not a basic training center, which means a lot of the support systems that exist elsewhere do not exist there," he said. "In basic training, you have powerful drill instructors but more powerful integration into a training company. It is a collective. After training, you go to units where they combine and become cohesive.

'Focus on the individual'

"But in individual training, as the name implies, the focus is on the individual. The existence of companies is more or less an administrative necessity. It is not a meaningful unit, or training unit. It is a transitional phase, which means the company, as a basic support for the trainee, is not there as it is in basic training or the field Army."

Another problem, according to Segal, is that in training for a technical qualification, the students are preparing not only for a military career but for later civilian jobs.

"The evaluations of the trainees at the training center, and their passing or failing their training course, has implications well beyond whether they are going to be professional soldiers," he said. "It may give the trainer more psychological leverage."

But not all unequal relationships in uniform are forbidden, even in the Army. It is possible for an officer to court and marry a junior officer or even an enlisted person, as long as the relationship, as it develops, is kept discreet and does not involve a direct line of command, favored treatment or special relationship.

'No crime with marriage'

"There is no crime associated with marriage," said the military legal expert. "If you carry on a relationship and keep it secret and it culminates in marriage, the services tend to view it as a fait accompli.

"We have a legally sanctioned relationship and now we have to deal with it. Basically, you never put them together [in the same line of command]. You make sure they have assignments that don't put them in a special relationship."

But even unequal relationships that do not violate the rules can draw fire, inviting official counseling, perhaps threatening the promotion and careers of those involved.

"There is a whole lot of stuff out there that is not a good idea, that is going to draw criticism and censure, but not prosecution," said the lawyer. "But in any service, there is just a whole lot of potential for perfectly legitimate social dating. There is really just a very narrow slice of contact which is subject to criminal action and a slightly wider slice that may be subject to disapproval.

"It is not like, 'Gee, I can't date the only people I want to date.' If I tell you I can't date enlisted ranks, that doesn't really cramp my style."

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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