Army seeks a grip on scandal Lack of leadership, integrated training are under review

February 04, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

With new charges of Army sexual misconduct becoming nearly as common as reveille, lawmakers and Army officials are struggling to determine what is behind the servicewide scandal -- and how it can be resolved.

More than three months after the scandal broke at an Aberdeen Proving Ground school, members of a Pentagon panel are touring Army training posts to talk with female recruits. House members just returned from a similar trip to Pacific bases, quizzing commanders and listening to the complaints of female soldiers and sailors.

And this morning, Army Secretary Togo West and the service's top generals are scheduled to appear on Capitol Hill to answer questions about the scandal that already has spurred about 200 investigations. It has led to courts-martial and suspensions of dozens of drill sergeants and instructors throughout the country.

The Army "still has a ways to go in assimilating women," said retired Brig. Gen. Mary C. Willis. "I think this is a big leadership challenge, one that has not been met."

Some say it all comes down to a lack of leadership, a disciplinary vacuum that allowed sergeants to date -- or rape -- their trainees at Aberdeen and other Army posts. Others say female soldiers merely need a more effective and comfortable method of reporting sexual assault -- one that is outside the prying eyes of military peers and commanders.

Still others fault the integrated training. If men and women are paired in an instructor-trainee relationship, these critics say, they will learn to shoot by day and inevitably have sex at night.

Army sources say instances of instructors having sex with trainees are nothing new, but are more frequent as more women move into the ranks. The situation is ignored by officers, some say, creating an atmosphere that harms morale and could hinder the effectiveness of the troops.

"It's not something limited to Aberdeen Proving Ground," said one military lawyer, who requested anonymity. While he was stationed at Fort Jackson, an Army training base in South Carolina, the bulk of his work involved prosecuting sergeants who had sex with recruits, he said.

"Those [military facilities] with the largest problem have the largest number of women. When you have senior Army leaders professing no idea about what's going on, it's a little bit facetious."

At the U.S. Ordnance Center and School at Aberdeen, 56 current and former trainees now say they were victims of sexual $H misconduct, an increase of five in the past month, said Army and congressional sources. Although these sources say more than a dozen women have leveled rape charges, most allegations are less severe, ranging from prohibited dating to improper comments.

Military regulations prohibit a superior from having any kind of personal relationship with a subordinate; one charge at Aberdeen involved a sergeant discussing religion with a trainee.

Meanwhile, the Army said last week that it had suspended a dozen male instructors at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri since December, part of a probe into allegations that female trainees were abused. The number of suspended instructors at the fort, one of the Army's largest basic training bases, is now 28; six already have been either court-martialed or charged with crimes ranging from improper relationships to indecent assault.

Willis recalled similar sexual misconduct between sergeants and recruits more than two decades ago, when she was stationed at Fort McClellan in Alabama. A firm no-tolerance message from the command is what is needed, she said.

"It all depends on the commanding officer," agreed Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Florida Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee, who interviewed military women last month bases in Hawaii and Japan.

For example, women praised the atmosphere at a U.S. military base in Yokota, Japan, she said.

On Okinawa, however, two-thirds of the 20 military women Fowler interviewed said they had been sexually harassed. But many feared they would be labeled "tattletales" and have their careers threatened if they came forward.

"There's definitely a need for some type of reporting method that an alternative to the chain of command," she said. "We need to see what there is to make the person feel comfortable."

But Susan Barnes, president of the advocacy group WANDAS (Women Active in Our Nation's Defense, their Advocates and Supporters), says she is hearing from Army women who complain that their leadership is not serious about dealing with sexual misconduct. A new reporting method will be worthless without the commitment of officers.

"Nobody's going to report if they believe the end result will be the loss of their service careers," Barnes said.

Members of the congressional women's caucus have called for an Army "ombudsman" to handle complaints of sexual misconduct in the military.

Still there are those, such as Rep. Robert L. Livingston, who say such efforts are misplaced.

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