WASHINGTON -- The Army has a message for officers and enlisted soldiers who are friends, lovers or business partners: Your days are numbered.
As early as this week, the Army will impose stricter curbs on fraternization: personal relationships of any kind -- with the same or the opposite sex -- that could harm what soldiers refer to as "unit cohesion" and "good order and discipline."
The new guidelines will bring the Army into line with the other services, which bar personal or business relationships between officers and the enlisted ranks, regardless of sex.
For more than two decades, the Army has permitted such relationships between officers and lower-ranking soldiers so long as they were not in the same chain of command.
This policy was driven by the greater numbers of women entering military service in the 1970s. Women now make up about 14 percent of the Army.
One result was hundreds of marriages between officers and enlisted soldiers in the 480,000-member Army and the 850,000-member Army National Guard and Reserve. The new policy will not affect existing marriages, officials said.
Series of embarrassments
In the past two years, the military has been beset by high-profile adultery cases and sexual wrongdoing, such as the illicit relations between sergeants and women recruits at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Such embarrassments led Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to press for a review of adultery and fraternization policies.
Cohen's review was also spurred by the rise in operations involving all the services. Different standards between the Army and the other services, Cohen said in July, are "antithetical to good order and discipline and are corrosive to morale."
"The main point was always the dating issue," said one Pentagon official.
Army officers fear that the new policy will upset a long-standing Army tradition -- male bonding.
Some note that camaraderie built through the occasional beer and poker game, dinner with spouses or intermittent visit with a noncommissioned officer to the officers' club would be prohibited.
Reaction in Maryland
At Fort Meade, soldiers who recently learned of the new rules seem divided over them.
Some older soldiers who recall the days of a stricter Army fraternization policy seemed comfortable with the idea of cutting ties between officers and noncommissioned soldiers. But others said they felt the rules represented regression and a double standard.
"I think we're taking a step back," said Col. Dave Titus. "I think the policy now is working. Most of the enlisted and officers understand, as long as [the dating] wasn't in the chain of command, it was OK."
A new policy forbidding such relationships would show that "the Army has a double standard on some things," said one captain who did not want to be identified.
She said she was taught in officer training school that officers and enlisted soldiers should be treated equally. But if one group is not allowed to date the other, she said, it reinforces a sense of inequality.
Dispute delays unveiling
Cohen approved the stricter guidelines three weeks ago.
Those guidelines had been expected to be announced today, but a dispute over the date they will take effect has delayed the announcement.
The Army wants the policy to begin in March 2000. It says the year's grace period would offer the troops -- particularly officer-enlisted romantic couples -- time to make crucial decisions about their relationships.
They could break up, marry or leave the service.
Top Defense Department officials want the rules in place much sooner, as early as 60 days from now -- or at least by the end of the year, Pentagon officials said.
"They told us, `We don't like the time line,' " said an Army source, who said it was still uncertain when the new rules will take effect.
The Army explained its position yesterday in a meeting with Rudy deLeon, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
Some soldiers at Fort Meade said they welcomed the stricter rules.
"Deep down inside, I don't think you should have fraternization," said a 59-year-old master sergeant who requested anonymity.
"It makes for a whole lot less problems. Morale has suffered already with all this sexual harassment."
The sergeant said that while one policy should apply to all branches of the military, 60 days may not be enough time for the Army to make the change.
Nevertheless, soldiers will comply, she said, adding that, "given this climate, one more rule is not going to make a difference."
Another soldier, a first lieutenant from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, agreed.
"It's all designed to keep everybody out of trouble since there are problems," the 27-year-old officer said.
But a 60-day deadline "is going to be hard for people involved in that situation. It'll probably make things even more secretive. People already try to keep [relationships] under wraps, but everybody knows about it."