APG case faces test Tailhook's legacy clouds investigation at Harford base

Army effort criticized

Key court-martial begins today in military sex scandal

March 31, 1997|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

In rushing to show they "get it" after Tailhook, Army leaders have infected the sexual misconduct case at Aberdeen Proving Ground with the same explosive gender politics the Navy's scandal brought to the armed forces six years ago, say military and legal experts.

The result is low morale among male Army instructors, rampant criticism from across the political spectrum, and none of the results Army leaders promised. A key test of the Army's case begins today with Staff Sgt. Delmar G. Simpson's court-martial on rape, assault and other charges involving 18 female recruits.

Legal experts say Army leaders, who watched a sluggish response to Tailhook taint the careers of more than 33 Navy admirals, overreached five months ago and pressed serious charges without enough evidence. Now, the experts say, the Army's case is looking like a Tailhook replay, right down to the choreographed public crusade to make Army leaders look good at their male soldiers' expense.

"It was done to be obsequious to the feminist agenda to root out the last vestige of male chauvinism in the world," said Henry Hamilton, a South Carolina attorney who retired after 14 years as a judge-advocate general, an Army prosecutor. "The Army has sacrificed its own troops on the altar of feminist political correctness."

For weeks, the Army has defended its investigation against national civil rights groups, women's organizations, members of Congress, and its own soldiers.

Fifty-six female recruits who trained at Aberdeen between January 1995 and October 1996 accused 22 male superiors of crimes as serious as rape, assault and forcible sodomy. Army prosecutors have not proved any of those charges.

Four of the 10 Aberdeen soldiers charged with crimes have been cleared of the most serious allegations. A sergeant was found guilty of forcing a female recruit to write his college term paper.

'Abuse of power business'

"Too many people are looking at this from the sexual aspect," said Col. John Smith, an Army spokesman. "This is an abuse of power business. We have leaders who are entrusted with the care of subordinates. That's what makes our military. When that trust is violated it cuts to the core of organization."

The case has changed dramatically since Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army's top officer, outlined the alleged sex crimes at Aberdeen in November. Forty percent of the accusers have acknowledged that they consented to sex with their superiors, yet no women have been charged with breaking military rules prohibiting sex between soldiers of different rank.

Army critics have dubbed Aberdeen the "Feminist Proving Ground."

Charles C. Moskos, a Northwestern University sociology professor, said the Army, as the Navy did in Tailhook, is "holding women to a different standard of sexual morality." He proposes a new system to review allegations of sexual misconduct within the military that would require female soldiers to interview female soldiers.

"Women are tougher on women," Moskos said. "There may not have been the rush to judgment there was in this case."

Tailhook inspired the handling of the Aberdeen cases from the start.

"The similarity begins with the hype and the expectation that hundreds of heads would roll," said Elaine Donnelly, who served on the 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces. "If the Army doesn't watch out they are going to make the same mistakes. Guilty parties may end up going free and innocent parties may take their place."

In September 1991, 4,000 naval aviators and defense contractors gathered in the Las Vegas Hilton for a rowdy annual convention sponsored by the Tailhook Association. Eighty-three women claimed they were fondled, mauled, verbally abused and subjected to other sexual harassment.

The allegations eventually implicated more than 140 Navy officers, including 33 admirals who attended Tailhook and a handful of other flag officers who failed to respond quickly to the allegations.

Scores of Navy careers ended -- including Adm. Frank Kelso's, then-chief of naval operations -- and hundreds of promotions were delayed throughout the fleet. But no women were punished, even those who consented to having their legs shaved publicly by male superiors later charged with "conduct unbecoming."

Navy officers, fearing they would drown in the rising political water, influenced the investigation from the start. And civilian leaders, displeased that too few naval squadron commanders were implicated, called in the Department of Defense Inspector General after nine months.

"They [the IG investigators] came in like storm troopers," Donnelly said.

The IG report criticized virtually every Navy leader who oversaw the Tailhook investigation. But the report was given little weight in court because of apparent inaccuracies and alleged coercion by investigators. Similar charges have emerged in Aberdeen.

When Tailhook was over, the Navy had failed to convict a single officer in a court-martial for criminal misconduct.

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