Sexual scandal has US Navy chiefs all at sea: Revelations of misconduct have forced the entire military to examine how women are treated, says David Usborne in Washington

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The Independent Online
AS THE United States Navy struggles through a mire of scandals and disgraces involving sexual harassment and misconduct in its ranks, a drill sergeant was yesterday demoted and fined in a court martial for fondling trainees.

The humiliation of the Marine instructor has come as the Navy continues to be rocked by revelations of a virtual orgy of debauchery and sexual abuse at an annual conference of naval airmen at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas last September, known as the Tailhook Convention.

The Tailhook affair, which led to the resignation in June of the US Secretary of the Navy, Lawrence Garrett, coupled with a string of other incidents, including this week's court martial, has prompted a virtual frenzy of self- examination throughout the US military over its treatment of women.

Amid a burst of activity to help repair the Navy's image, the Defence Secretary, Dick Cheney, announced separately yesterday that he was replacing the Navy chief in charge of education and training, Vice-Admiral Jack Fetterman, who has been accused of shielding a sailor from disciplinary action related to homosexual advances made to other naval ratings.

Military commanders have meanwhile moved to step up training at all US bases to eliminate lewd and offensive behaviour between male and female soldiers. All Marine stations were recently sent video instruction films on the subject and the Army Chief of Staff, Gordon Sullivan, has dispatched private consultants to army camps to evaluate the level of awareness among soldiers of the inappropriateness of sexual harassment.

Emphasis is also being placed on the need to punish those found guilty of harassment as an example to others, as in this week's court martial hearings.

Although military prosecutors had recommended a harsher penalty, Gunnery Sergeant Michael Wallace was fined dollars 750 ( pounds 400) and demoted two ranks by a military tribunal in Pensacola, Florida. Sgt Wallace was found guilty of various charges of 'fraternisation' with enlisted women including dropping ice-cubes down the trousers of female trainees and following them down with his hands.

The sergeant had many decorations, one earned for saving the life of one of the women who testified against him by removing pancake lodged in her throat. A court martial of another drill instructor at the same camp is due to open next Monday.

Investigations are still under way into events at the Tailhook Convention, where at least 26 women were allegedly fondled and even undressed after being forced to run the gauntlet through aviators on the third floor of the hotel. Several 'hospitality suites' were also opened in hotel rooms, with free bars and pornographic video films being played. President George Bush reportedly forced the resignation of Secretary Garrett in late June after one of the women involved, a Navy lieutenant, went on the evening television news to describe vividly the assaults made against her.

Congressional hearings have meanwhile been opened into the Tailhook affair and its broader implications for women in the military by the Armed Services Committee.

'The aviation community has to understand that this not going to be tolerated,' said a Republican representative, Beverly Byron.

Hopes have been raised that the shock of the scandal may provide the catalyst to correct the continuing uneven treatment of female personnel. It is also rekindling debate over the need to allow women to be assigned to full combat.

Some have complained there has been an over-reaction to Tailhook, named after the hook that snares aircraft landing on carriers, saying it has led to a 'witch-huntdm' of those considered responsible. Vice-Admiral Fetterman claimed he was being ditched by Mr Cheney as education chief because the Navy had been 'gripped by a climate of suspicion and innuendo'.

The continuing ban on homosexuals in the armed forces has also become a fierce political issue, fuelled by the discharge two weeks ago of Lieutenant Tracy Thorne from the Navy for admitting he was gay, in spite of a lengthy appeal by the 25-year-old man, who has an exemplary military record.

Roughly 1,000 military personnel are thrown out of the services every year following allegations of homosexuality.

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