Army officials defend response to sex scandal before Congress Policy of training women alongside men comes into question

February 05, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Top Army officials appeared before Congress yesterday and immediately found themselves defending not only their response to a widening sex scandal but also their long-standing policy of expanding job opportunities for female soldiers.

Both Democrats and Republicans expressed concerns about the perils implicit in the Army, where men and women train together and camp side by side in remote operations.

"I have some fundamental concerns about throwing very young women in a position with a drill sergeant," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican. "Are we really going to get to the bottom in an environment where political correctness may be driving this issue?"

Sen. Daniel R. Coats, an Indiana Republican, wondered why Army officials are surprised by the scandal that broke at an Aberdeen Proving Ground school in November. The Army is also investigating scores of charges at other Army posts.So far, 20 instructors have been suspended, and at least 56 women have complained of sexual misconduct.

None of the senators went so far yesterday as to suggest ending integrated training or barring women from certain jobs. But their comments contributed to a growing debate about women's roles in the military, one consequence of the Army sex scandal.

"We are attempting in an unusual environment to bring together genders where a natural sexual tension has historically existed," Coats said. He noted that a 1995 Army survey showed that 52 percent of female soldiers had experienced sexual harassment. "We're talking about a true systemic problem here."

But Army Secretary Togo West and Army generals rejected the notion that sexual harassment in the military is all but inevitable. They told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the scandal amounted to an abuse of power, not sexuality. The problems, they asserted, stem from a breakdown in leadership at local Army posts and a fear among women about reporting sexual misconduct.

"We're talking about leaders that did not do their job," West said. "That is shocking."

"This is not sexual harassment -- this is sexual misconduct," Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army's top general, told the panel. In the row behind him sat a stoic group of female Army and Marine officers.

Army officials say that women, who make up 14 percent of the Army, are an integral part of the all-volunteer force. The Army began allowing women and men to train together in occupational specialties in the 1970s, and in basic training in 1994, Reimer said.

It was precisely the military's efforts to achieve equality of opportunity for women that seemed to trouble Sen. Charles S. Robb, a Virginia Democrat and a former officer in the Marines, the only service without integrated training. Robb called it "a very difficult question," since, he said, he has "been very much an advocate of the fullest possible equality and equality of opportunity."

"It appears that there are at least some areas that we ought to question whether or not we may be pushing in a direction that is simply not productive," Robb said, "and unfair to some of those on both sides of the gender line."

West said that a review panel he has created would look into the issue of integrated training and whether it has succeeded. What role women should play in the armed forces is a legitimate question, he said, but one that should be separate from the sex scandal investigation.

Army officials said they were still perplexed by the scandal. "We are struck by the fact that clearly something is missing," West said.

Reimer said one factor could be military downsizing. Fewer officers are dealing with larger numbers of troops. There even have been cutbacks in the number of chaplains, a popular conduit for complaints.

More than 7,000 calls have come into an Army hot line, and 1,050 were deemed sufficient for investigation. The Army's Criminal Investigation Command is looking into more than 200 cases resulting from the calls.

Despite an Army-wide sexual harassment reporting system that was considered a model for the other services, women were reluctant to come forward, West said. "That is a very sobering thought for us," he said. "We thought we had done a commendable job."

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, said she was concerned about the "pervasiveness" of the Army's problem.

"The women in the armed forces need to know this problem will be taken care of," she said. "If I was a woman serving in the armed forces, I would be very much concerned about the environment."

Yesterday, another instructor was charged at Aberdeen, bringing the number facing disciplinary action to seven. The latest suspect, Staff Sgt. Vernell Robinson Jr., 31, faces rape, sodomy and assault charges.

Snowe said she was particularly troubled by allegations of sexual misconduct against Sgt. Maj. Gene C. McKinney, the top enlisted man in the Army, who was accused of groping and kissing a female sergeant last year. While the case is being investigated, McKinney resigned from a panel set up by West to look into the Army's sexual harassment policies.

McKinney has denied the charges, and Army officials at the Pentagon said he will remain on duty there while the charges are investigated.

Pub Date: 2/05/97

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