US Army in dock over rape of recruits

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The Independent Online
The Pentagon and Congress yesterday launched separate, high-level investigations into the sexual-harassment scandal buffeting the US Army, amid growing concern that abuses which came to light at a Maryland training camp this month may be just a single manifestation of a problem rife throughout the armed forces.

Announcing the establishment of a "Senior Review Panel on Sexual Harassment", Togo West, the Army Secretary, said the body, to be chaired by a former deputy inspector of the Army, would deliver a preliminary report by the end of March. The panel, he promised, would have "immense clout".

Mr West, the civilian "minister" in charge of the Army, made clear that the investigation would go far beyond the incidents at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, north of Baltimore, where four sergeants and a captain have been charged with harassing, raping - and in at least one case threatening to kill - a dozen female recruits.

Since then the Army has received 5,000 calls on a hot-line set up to hear complaints, of which 600 are under review.

Many have come from other training centres, including one in Missouri where seven instructors have been charged with misconduct.

"We have to find out whether the Army needs to learn more from these allegations," Mr West said.

"Is there something in our culture that causes these issues to arise?" He insisted that the specific cases in Maryland did not raise "cultural" questions but revolved around straightforward disobedience of existing army regulations.

They involve the basic command structure of the armed forces, which forbid sexual relations between officers and subordinates. In theory, this rule should nowhere be stricter than in training camps, where instructors and drill sergeants have huge powers to influence and exploit vulnerable recruits.

However, the Pentagon acknowledges that its safeguards did not work, to the point where female victims at Aberdeen were afraid to report what had happened. It admits too that it has only begun to implement a congressional law of 1989 ordering the armed services to set up "uniform reporting techniques" for all crimes, including sexual harassment. The practical result is that no overall statistics of sexual harassment in the military exist, hence the broader significance of Mr West's panel.

Newt Gingrich, renominated this week as Speaker of the House, has ordered a congressional committee to investigate sexual harassment at training bases of all branches of the military, pledging an "aggressive investigation" of every case.

Many women's groups say events at Aberdeen merely prove sexual harassment is endemic to the military, pointing to the 1991 Tailhook scandal, where Navy pilots ran amok at their annual convention in Las Vegas.

In fact ,the training-camp scandal is far worse, involving misconduct on base among uniformed personnel.