Culture At Apg Dictated Silence

Instructors Were Mute Even When Suspecting Peers Of Misconduct

April 26, 1997|By Scott Wilson and Tom Bowman | Scott Wilson and Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

There were whispered rumors, repeated admissions and unmistakable sightings. Sergeants at Aberdeen Proving Ground were having sex with female soldiers -- in barracks offices, bathrooms and on-post apartments.

Yet the drill sergeants who knew or had strong suspicions stayed silent, at least four of them and possibly more. Some even tipped off friends and fellow sergeants participating in what came to be known as "the game" by some of its players, documents and testimony show.

Why drill sergeants, the first link in Aberdeen's chain of command, did not report their colleagues is a question that will occupy Army leaders long after the verdict in Staff Sgt. Delmar G. Simpson's rape case.

The issue is a central element of the Army inspector general's review of what happened at Aberdeen between January 1995 and September 1996 in a scandal in which more than 25 Aberdeen soldiers are implicated and that has prompted a militarywide search for sex crimes in the ranks.

The answer may lie in a mix of military machismo, Aberdeen's lax "command environment" and the mixed message on loyalty that the U.S. armed forces historically have given troops.

The silence -- even complicity -- at Aberdeen has echoes of the Naval Academy's 1991 cheating scandal that involved 135 midshipmen who put classmate ahead of concept with disastrous consequences for the institution.

"We all know in the abstract that our ultimate loyalty is to the truth," said Marine Col. David Vetter, the academy's ethics officer. "But when it's your roommate, your friend, it's another matter."

Atmosphere of approval

In testimony at Simpson's court-martial, interviews and sworn statements obtained by The Sun, an atmosphere of tacit approval among Aberdeen drill sergeants has emerged. Several soldiers not charged with crimes nonetheless have been suspended pending investigations into whether their silence amounts to dereliction of duty.

According to testimony, one sergeant knocked on a female trainee's door as a warning to Simpson -- who awaits a verdict on 19 rape and 35 other charges -- who was having sex with the woman inside.

Another drill sergeant, according to testimony, listened to a fellow instructor brag about sex with 60 privates but did not reported it. And a senior drill instructor, told by a female trainee that Simpson gave her a sexually transmitted disease, kept the information to himself.

"We don't know why, we don't know the answer," said Lt. Col. Gabriel Riesco, chief of staff at Aberdeen's Ordnance Center and School. "We have been thinking about that for some time. We're hoping the Department of the Army will tell us when it completes its investigation."

Paradoxically, Aberdeen appears to have remained quiet precisely because the problem was so big. In all, 12 drill sergeants and instructors from five of the school's six training companies have been charged with crimes. As one accuser testified, Simpson told her: "When you are on top, no one can touch you."

Official vs. unofficial culture

In addition, some drill sergeants say they feared they might not be clean enough to report their colleagues. Staff Sgt. William C. Howard, for example, told Army investigators in a sworn statement that he didn't report the "improper contact" of three other drill sergeants because he had just been cleared of similar charges.

"We may have, on an official level, an atmosphere that you report, but the culture in the unit that existed was one that you did not report," Col. Paul Johnston, the military judge in the Simpson case said from the bench this week.

Another problem was the nature of the accusations.

Military experts say that if the allegations involved car thefts or drug dealing, for example, soldiers might have been more likely to report the incidents.

But in Aberdeen's fraternity house culture -- one sergeant kept a box of condoms in his office file cabinet -- soldiers may have been reluctant to report what many believed to be consensual, if illegal, sex between adults.

Relying on soldiers to report

Charles C. Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University, said the Army must depend on "enlightened males" who will report sexual misconduct.

And David R. Segal, a University of Maryland sociologist, said there may be greater tolerance of sexual impropriety than other types of misconduct.

But Army Col. Barbara M. Lee, senior military assistant to Sara E. Lister, the Army's assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, doubted that the men failed to come forward just because the issue was sexual misconduct.

"Are women devalued too much in the military? For the life of me I can't say it's true. I don't see it happening in the Army," said Lee. She sees it more as a question of loyalty than one of gender.

The military has been known to send a mixed message on loyalty.

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