Army to name inquiry panel Members of military, civilians to investigate harassment charges

November 20, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and Tom Bowman | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Stung by burgeoning reports of sexual misconduct by instructors and sergeants, the Army plans to create a military-civilian panel to investigate whether it is facing a servicewide harassment problem.

The panel, to be named next week according to a senior Army official, will be headed by a two-star Army general and include both male and female soldiers and civilians, along with the sergeant major of the Army -- the highest enlisted member of the service.

The official, who asked not to be named, also said:

Disciplinary action against any female Aberdeen trainees who engaged in an unlawful consensual relationship with a sergeant or other superior is unlikely.

"I would suspect we are not in the business of blaming the victims," he said. "Yes, every adult is responsible for his or her actions, but in this case, in this relationship of a supervisor with a trainee, there is no excuse for the supervisor not being responsible for controlling this circumstance and seeing that both behave properly."

Accountability of senior officers will be examined to determine what they knew -- or why they didn't know -- about the abuse.

"The heart of what we have here that concerns the Army so much is -- if the allegations prove true -- a failure of leaders to take care of people, to lead."

The Army will review its training of drill instructors, among the most powerful of figures in a recruit's life.

"We have had in place for, I estimate, a couple of decades a very easy rule for drill sergeants and, in fact, other senior personnel responsible for training: Keep your hands off your trainees," the official said.

"It may be that somehow our message to them has seemed less credible. We will not only look at the training but the way we communicate the message."

Male and female recruits will not be segregated during training, as they are in the Marines.

"There is no turning back," Army Secretary Togo West said. "Our Army fights as it trains, and we are going to have to train in a way that is realistic in view of our society and our requirement for the broadest base pool from which to draw for that Army."

The Army opposes the creation of an "ombudsman," suggested by a group of female members of Congress this week, to handle sexual abuse complaints.

"I don't like the idea," West said. "We have an ombudsman. It is called the inspector general. What we have to do is make the thing works right."

Investigating all facilities

The Army inspector general is looking into whether the %o allegations of rape, sodomy and fraternization that first surfaced at an Aberdeen Proving Ground school in September are a problem at all 16 facilities under the Training and Doctrine Command.

So far, 20 soldiers have been suspended at Aberdeen's U.S. Ordnance Center and School, and sexual misconduct complaints have poured in from other bases.

As of last night, 4,717 calls had been received by a special toll-free Army hot line, with 633 judged worthy of investigation. Of the cases referred to military investigators, 108 relate to Aberdeen and 525 to other military locations.

Why not servicewide panel?

"They don't need to see if they have a problem," said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center and an authority on the treatment of women in the military. "They need to figure out what to do about it.

"I understand why West feels he needs to do this. But it is not clear why [Defense Secretary William J.] Perry doesn't feel this should be servicewide. It's another example of each service proceeding on its own track when really the problems go across all the services."

In the wake of the allegations at Aberdeen, Perry last week ordered the secretaries of the Navy and the Air Force to check their services for any traces of similar abuse problems.

The new panel will assess the role of women in the Army, investigating whether their wider utilization in positions of authority would reduce the threat of harassment.

Members will travel to bases and talk to soldiers to find out why an apparently massive backlog of complaints built up before the Army opened its hot line. A recent survey found the Army was losing to the other services its image of being the most responsive to sexual harassment complaints.

Complaints not categorized

Army officials have not revealed whether the majority of complaints received by the hot line are fraternization -- unlawful consensual relations between superior and subordinate -- or more serious charges, such as rape, sodomy and assault. It also is too early to say whether certain Army bases are worse than others.

Among the 20 suspended at Aberdeen's ordnance school, three military trainers -- one captain and two sergeants -- are expected to face courts-martial. Two other sergeants have received lesser punishment.

Texas, Missouri cases

Meanwhile, at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, the Army has investigated 45 sexual harassment allegations at a medical training school during the past two years, including several stemming from base-sponsored trips to Mexico, a base commander said yesterday. Five sergeants have been relieved of training duties and two sentenced to jail as a result of harassment that allegedly occurred during the trips.

At Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, a staff sergeant has been court-martialed and sentenced to five months in prison for sexual relations with trainees. Two other noncommissioned officers face similar charges in courts-martial trials next month.

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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