Scandal gives wild image to once-dull Aberdeen

April 03, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

My roommate in college, Joe Dipersio, came from Aberdeen, a pleasant Harford County town, but escaped as soon as he could. He always said nothing ever happened in Aberdeen. A lot he knew. Joe took off for a more glamorous life. He found Cincinnati. Right now, all of his neighbors are probably asking him, "Was Aberdeen always that wild?"

Like this? Never. Joe used to claim the most exciting thing in town was strolling down to the bakery to smell hot bread. The big entertainment was the high school basketball team. The best-known landmark back then was the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Folks had heard about it as far away as Havre de Grace, probably.

But everybody's heard about it now, all over the country. What Tailhook did to the Navy's reputation, allegations of sexual misconduct here are doing to the Army's, making the guys look like a bunch of Neanderthal bullies and the women, even these tough, no-nonsense types, look like victims, which is nobody's idea of an ideal military look.

At last count, 11 instructors at the proving ground had been charged with sex crimes, all of them allegations of men with rank and power having sex with women who had neither, and some of them cases of black men with white women, which the NAACP believes is American racism rearing its head.

But the NAACP's not the only one with questions. Some are asking: Was this really sexual abuse, or has the Army itself bullied some of the alleged victims into creating military misconduct out of simple human longing? And, does the Army have a right to invade people's private lives in such a manner, or, is there room for a private life in the military?

"Myself, I don't understand it," one Army lifer was saying now. We were sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Aberdeen, not far from Interstate 95. The lifer is a sergeant who's been stationed here for several years and still remembers instructions he got the first day he arrived.

" 'Don't get near those young girls,' " he said. "That's what they told us, 'Don't socialize with them, don't fraternize with them, and if you have to go into their barracks, don't you do it without bringing some female officer with you.' "

For the record, the sergeant is black. This seems to count for something in the current controversy, although not all of the talk concerns race. Some of it concerns the mixing of males and females, and how the whole sexual scandal has been made into headlines to show those damned liberals down in Washington that the military never should have gone co-ed, and here's the proof.

Or, as a friend of mine in Baltimore says, "It's a three-fer."

My friend happens to be black. Also, gay. Also, puzzled to this day about all the talk we heard a few years back, now somewhat muted, about allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

"So now," he was saying, "we have the old, conservative Army crowd getting a three-fer. All the defendants in Aberdeen are black men, so let's get blacks out of the military. The victims are women, which shows you can't have females mixing with males in the military. And we know you can't have faggots."

He's saying this, of course, with sarcasm around each syllable.

"It's like, 'The Army is a team where each member has to be able to count on each other. Blacks can't cut it. Women can't. Faggots can't.' It's a three-fer. All that business about gays in the military, all that 'don't ask, don't tell' stuff, was a terrible issue to begin with. I mean, I don't know any gays who want to be in the military. For all the controversy, the issue was irrelevant to most of our lives. It created a backlash against us over an issue nobody cared about."

The irony being, in light of all the recent controversy, maybe it's heterosexuals who need to be kept out of the military. Six years ago, when the Tailhook scandal broke, male Navy commanders were accused of groping and fondling female officers during an aviators conference.

First, the Navy was criticized for taking allegations of sex abuse too lightly. Then, having looked into 140 harassment cases, the Navy caught more flak when not a single officer was convicted of a criminal act.

So today, there's talk that the Army's wielding too heavy a hand, that this controversy's really about race, or it's about bringing back the old "this man's Army," and that the Army has magnified private, consensual sex into rape and brought much unwanted attention to the Army, and to Aberdeen.

It's a long way from the atmosphere in which my old college roommate grew up in Aberdeen. The town's more accustomed to tamer pleasures. It's opening a new Cal Ripken Museum in Aberdeen, with a statue of Cal sculpted by Susan Luery. She did the Babe Ruth monument outside Oriole Park.

"The museum's going to draw a lot of visitors here," a Chamber of Commerce official said yesterday. I asked him if the town had any other tourist attractions, to make folks stick around after seeing the Ripken exhibit.

"Absolutely," he said.

"Such as?"

"The Decoy Museum," he said. "It's been here for years."

To think, my old roommate walked away from that, just for the glamour of Cincinnati.

Pub Date: 4/03/97

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