Sexual abuse scandal hits US Army

Questions are now being asked about the basic wisdom of mixing the sexes in the military

Five years ago, the Tailhook scandal struck a blow at the US Navy's image from which that service has yet entirely to recover. Now it is the turn of the Army, rocked by a growing scandal of institutionalised sexual abuse and misbehaviour at one of its largest training facilities which is raising basic questions about the place of women in the armed forces.

A stream of revelations over the past four days has sent the US news media flocking to the giant Aberdeen Proving Ground north of Baltimore, in Maryland, where some 11,000 young military personnel, up to 20 per cent of them women, come every year to be instructed in the maintenance and repair of weapons, tanks and other heavy equipment.

If evidence released by the Army is to be believed, however, an equally important skill for the female trainees has been to dodge the attentions of drill instructors taking advantage of their status to demand, and on occasion obtain by force, sexual favours from their charges.

So far three drill instructors, including one company commander, have been formally accused of offences ranging from rape and forcible sodomy to adultery, which in the US military is a crime. According to the charges one of them threatened his victim with the words, "If anyone finds out about this, I'll kill you."

Inevitably, the episode has drawn comparisons with the Tailhook scandal, when the 1991 annual convention of Navy aviators at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas degenerated into a veritable Bacchanalia of sexual harassment and abuse that led to Congressional hearings and may have contributed to the suicide last May of Admiral Jeremy Boorda, the Navy's chief of operations and senior uniformed officer.

Well aware of the damage caused by the Navy high command's initially weak response to Tailhook, the Army this time has acted swiftly and vigorously: apart from the three instructors charged, 20 other soldiers, both officers and of non-commissioned ranks, have been suspended as of yesterday, while almost 1,500 calls have been logged on a toll-free 'hot line' set up to register complaints arising from what Major General Robert Shadley, commander of the Aberdeen facility, has called "the worst thing I have ever seen in the army".

And in many ways the allegedly systematic sexual harassment and licence at Aberdeen, if confirmed, would be more serious than Tailhook. For one thing, if the charges thus far are to be believed, the practice was underpinned by intimidation. Second, unlike Tailhook, the incidents took place on base and in uniform, and indeed seem to have grown out of routine life at the base.

Nor may the scandal be as straightforward as it at first appeared. Responding to the allegations, the three men charged say they have been falsely accused. They do not deny having had sexual relations - illegal between officers and trainees - but insist these were consensual.

As a result, questions are now being asked about the basic wisdom of mixing the sexes in the military. Rigorous separation between them in the barracks at Aberdeen has failed to prevent affairs; such is now the level of suspicion there that women cadets have been ordered not to move around the base without a "buddy", or chaperon, while no drill commander dare be left alone with a female trainee.

But the army insists that desegregation will continue, whatever the current furore: "Sure, we could solve this by not having male instructors," the Army Secretary, Togo West, said this weekend. "But that answer disregards the nature of our society ... there is no segregation ultimately in the defence of our country."

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