Sexual harassment in the Army Pentagon report: Officials acknowledge that gender bias impedes ability to defend.

September 13, 1997

MANY FEARED that the Army would respond with a ''bunker mentality'' after reports of widespread sexual harassment in its ranks surfaced last year. This week, the bunker blew up.

A report by senior military officials on the sexual climate in the Army, released by the Pentagon, was unflattering, unflinching and unequivocal. It concluded that sexual harassment, ranging from inappropriate comments to job discrimination to assault, is pervasive and must be stopped. Most important, the Army seems to recognize that the problem is not some sociological sidelight which it must address solely to mollify politicians and the public, but a deep, operational ill that hampers the performance of its men and women.

Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr. made a distinction between the findings and the sexual crimes at Aberdeen Proving Ground, for which several drill sergeants have been sentenced and which has also ended the career of the general in charge of the post when the scandal broke.

Indeed, in the report, a minority -- albeit a significant one -- of the 30,000 troops surveyed at 59 facilities worldwide reported coercion or physical threat. But the report also made clear that offensive behavior and sexual harassment overall is not an aberration: Three-quarters of both men and women responded that they experienced crude behavior; nearly that many said they had experienced sexist behavior. Nearly half the women and one-third of the men said they met with unwanted sexual attention.

Officials acknowledged that the problem begins at the top. Officers failed to inculcate a sense that unprofessional behavior, much less unlawfulness, would be punished. Drill sergeants were given authority to lead without the training or knowledge to do so. The procedure for reporting infractions constituted a bizarre system of backward justice, in which the complainants themselves were punished.

The most critical outcome of the past year's controversy is that the Army is beginning to take steps to correct the problem. It is tightening selection of drill sergeants and increasing the ratio of women at that rank; adding training in "human relations" and ethics, and appointing more chaplains to counsel employees.

The Army must also ensure a clear and receptive channel for reporting infractions and a concrete time frame for their resolution. Congress and the public will be watching to see that the Army lives up to its promise. Only a direct and decisive response can cure this sickness.

Pub Date: 9/13/97

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