Military drill

November 18, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

AT ABERDEEN the soldiers walk in pairs now. They go everywhere on the military grounds two by two, according to what the Army calls the "buddy system."

But female "battle buddies" are not emblems of teamwork. Nor are they partners protecting each other from a foreign enemy. In this sorry chapter of military life, the danger to the women is from the friendly fire of sexual combat. From their own superiors.

At the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, a few brave women have broken the silence even at the risk of breaking ranks. Now, the circles are widening.

This month, the Army charged two drill sergeants and a company commander with rape, coerced sex, sexual harassment. Another 15 men in Aberdeen have been suspended. All 17 training bases are now under investigation.

The original 12 women have escalated to include more than 50 from the Maryland site and hundreds elsewhere. Present and former military women who never believed that the Army would listen are suddenly calling the hot line.

The picture of military life drawn from all this is by no means as assuring or as stirring as the images used to recruit young men and women to be all they can be.

Young women arrive at the Maryland training ground straight out of boot camp after weeks pushing their physical limits. They are taught, above all else, to respect authority and follow orders.

What many encountered at this early moment in their military careers was, at minimum, abuse by the authority they were supposed to respect. What others encountered were, at worst, orders that Sgt. Delmar G. Simpson is said to have given more than one of his alleged rape victims: "If you ever tell anyone TTC about this, I'll hurt you."

The stories fit into the all too familiar pattern of sexual harassment -- a pattern of powerful men and vulnerable women. As Nancy Duff Campbell, who has been working on women in the military at the National Women's Law Center for two decades, describes it, "You have women right out of high school coming into a situation with the most powerful authority figures they have ever had. And they are told by the establishment that this person is God."

Throughout the military, women are a minority, less than 20 percent, clustered at the lowest end of the hierarchy in a hierarchical culture. A full 61 percent of women in the Army surveyed last year experienced sexual harassment.

What the military lacks, says Ms. Campbell, "is a critical mass of women, and women in positions of leadership seen as equals." Without these changes the atmosphere crackles with the power disequilibrium that makes harassment possible. And women in the Army can't just quit their jobs.

The annals of Aberdeen, like the tales of Tailhook, capture our attention and dismay for good reasons. In a time when few institutions teach values of citizenship, the military loudly promises to ground its members in "duty, honor, country." Even in its volunteer incarnation, the military retains a special place in national life.

We pay to be protected by our armies. We don't expect to be endangered by them.

In the end, what is most painful about this growing scandal is the knowledge that young women who sign up to serve, even to die, are being put in harm's way . . .of their own commanders.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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