A cool embrace for Army rules on socializing Some fear new policy could end rituals that build cohesion

'One of the sticking points'

December 25, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A new Pentagon policy that will bar Army officers from dating soldiers of a lower rank may also upset a more long-standing tradition: male bonding.

Both active duty and reserve Army officers worry that a new fraternization policy, expected to be approved by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen in the coming weeks, could bar occasional socializing between junior officers and their sergeants.

Such activity is necessary, they argue, to forge camaraderie and build unit cohesion.

Among the victims could be such Army mainstays as "right-arm nights," which allow lieutenants to invite their sergeants to the officers' club, the occasional beer and poker game, as well as the periodic dinner with their spouses.

"What the frat policy will do to that is one of the sticking points," said one Army colonel. "It's going to cause a real problem in the Army."

Retired Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, a former Army chief of staff, said he fears that the new fraternization policy "is going to be interpreted more than a thousand different ways."

"I don't want that to mean that lieutenant so-and-so can't go out to dinner with a noncommissioned officer or warrant officer," he said.

The new policy will bring the Army into line with the Marines, Navy and Air Force, which prohibit any personal ties between officers and enlisted ranks, regardless of their sex.

Cohen said in July that a consistent policy is necessary at a time when the services are finding themselves stationed and fighting together in joint operations.

Since 1978, when women began entering the Army in greater numbers, the Army allowed officers and enlisted soldiers to date or have personal relationships, as long as they were not in the same chain of command. But Cohen said the policy created different standards that are "antithetical to good order and discipline and are corrosive to morale."

In June 1997, Cohen ordered policy reviews on fraternization and adultery, after a spate of sexual harassment cases involving trainers and young female recruits, principally at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

There were also several adultery cases, in particular those of Air Force Lt. Kelly Flinn and Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston.

Cohen gave the Army 30 days to come up with draft regulations and 60 days to devise a training plan. Those proposals are now being reviewed by Pentagon staffers and are expected to be approved by Cohen in the coming weeks, officials said.

The new policy will not affect existing marriages. There are an estimated 1,000 marriages between officers and enlisted personnel among the 480,000 on active duty, and another 1,200 marriages among the estimated 850,000 in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve, according to Army officials.

In its proposal, the Army has asked for a one-year grace period for the estimated thousands of men and women who are still in personal relationships, according to Army sources. The time would allow those soldiers to "get married or end it," according to one officer.

But officers are increasingly worried that the policy may harm same-sex bonding at the company and platoon level, where lieutenants and sergeants work closely together in a muddy-boots environment. Bonds and camaraderie between junior officers and enlisted personnel have traditionally been greater in the Army than in the other services, especially the Navy, where the confines of a ship dictate more formal relationships.

"If we're held to the same standard as the Navy position, it's going to cause real problems in the Army," said one colonel.

Charles C. Moskos, a highly regarded military sociologist at Northwestern University, says the Army is a social organization more horizontal than vertical. "The company commander and a first sergeant have to work very closely," Moskos said. "I think that horizontal bonding in a platoon and company is important."

By seeking to end two decades of male-female fraternization, said Moskos, Pentagon officials may inadvertently rip the same-sex bonds that have proved effective far longer.

"I think this is sort of an unintended side effect," he said. "I don't think they were thinking too much about that."

Retired Lt. Gen. Theodore G. Stroup Jr., the Army's former deputy chief of staff for personnel, said he was concerned that the new policy could be "rigidly" interpreted. "I think a problem could be an overzealous enforcement of the rules," he said.

Fraternization is punishable by a maximum of two years in prison. Enlisted personnel face a dishonorable discharge, and officers face dismissal, an equivalent punishment that could similarly include a loss of future benefits.

But a Defense Department official disputes the contention that the Army will suffer under the more stringent fraternization rules.

He predicted that such traditions as "right-arm nights" will continue, although more informal beers and dinners with noncommissioned officers may fall by the wayside.

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