Congressional tour of Aberdeen finds tangle of claims, complaints 'Bad apples' and 'machoism' blamed for scandal

December 12, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

Members of Congress toured an Aberdeen Proving Ground school, the heart of the Army's sexual misconduct scandal, yesterday and found a complex situation: recruits unsure of their rights, sergeants who contend they are unjustly accused by vengeful recruits and military cuts that have overburdened drill instructors.

The 13 House members, including four from Maryland, met with dozens of randomly selected trainees, drill instructors and commanders -- but no alleged victims -- during a daylong visit. They left with varied impressions of the roots of a scandal that erupted at Aberdeen last month and spread nationwide -- and varied ideas for how to deal with it.

Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican who led the delegation with Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Florida Republican, said some "bad apples" were at the center of the scandal.

"This is an issue of military climate, not of military culture," said Buyer, adding that a "breakdown" in the unit led to charges including rape and sodomy. "Military culture is of duty, honor and country," said Buyer, a major in the Army reserve who is on the House National Security Committee.

Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, a Democrat from Georgia, suggested more of a cultural problem, saying she was concerned how the military "lifestyle promotes machoism."

"What we have to get to the bottom of is how that machoism becomes rape," she said.

Many of the members praised top Aberdeen officials and the Army for reacting quickly to the charges and setting up a toll-free hot line for additional complaints. By last night, the hot line had received 6,199 calls, including 850 deemed worthy of investigation.

But they said more is needed. Some said recruits need better training on the issue of sexual misconduct or better ways to report problems. Others suggested psychological profiling to root out possible culprits.

"We're going to err on the side of the folks who are being victimized," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. "We have a window of opportunity to make a difference. If we don't make the difference now, I don't know when it will be made."

Cummings said some sergeants raised concerns about racial bias. A half-dozen sergeants have been meeting with local representatives of the National Association for the Advancement Colored People to ask for help.

"All of the accused are black, and most of the accusers are white," Cummings said. "The drill sergeants were very upset about it. They made it very clear that they felt that there was some bias here."

The Army has not released a racial breakdown of those accused and the alleged victims.

The visit "raised many questions without providing many answers," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat who said she was frustrated that lawmakers did not meet with any of the alleged victims. Such interviews could have interfered with the investigation, lawmakers said.

The accusations at Aberdeen last month have led to charges against two sergeants and a captain at the Army Ordnance Center and School who are awaiting courts-martial. In addition, 15 sergeants have been suspended as the investigation continues.

Thirty-four female trainees have said they were victims, including 13 who have said they were raped.

"The information we received today was complex and somewhat confusing," said Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat and a member of the National Security Committee.

"Drill sergeants whom we met feel that the charges are unfair and that 99 percent of them do their jobs well and are stigmatized by the 1 percent," she said

Some sergeants said they were "being victimized by some trainees who unfairly press charges as a way to get some kind of parity with an aggressive drill instructor," she said.

Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Maryland Republican, said the drill instructors felt they were "unjustly accused." But she also found many of the trainees "to be rather rudderless in many instances where they weren't really sure what their rights were."

Fowler and Buyer said some Army officials might not realize what is happening within the ranks because of Pentagon budget cuts. Personnel cutbacks have left some drill instructors training 100 recruits; the standard is one drill instructor for 50 recruits.

"If you have 100 young trainees, how are you going to know what is happening with all of them?" Fowler asked.

The Pentagon has a $265.6 billion budget for the coming fiscal year, $1.3 billion more than in the current one but not enough to account for inflation.

Buyer said the visit to Aberdeen was the first of several to training sites for all of the military services. "Our task goes beyond just Aberdeen," he said.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold hearings on the issue after Congress returns in January, said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who requested the hearings.

Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican, has agreed to hold hearings to look into "policies, practices and programs to eliminate sexual harassment in the military," she said.

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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