It seems like the same old story. Once again, a pattern of sexual abuse is uncovered in the American military. In a confidential message to his top officers that became public last week, the admiral in charge of the U.S. navy’s Pacific fleet urged a crackdown on a rising number of rapes and sexual assaults against female sailors. “I was surprised,”
Admiral Archie Clemins told his commanders. “We are experiencing these incidents at a greater rate than I had even suspected. Do not hesitate to tackle these tough issues. We must if we are to curb this pernicious and disgraceful behavior.”
Pernicious and disgraceful behavior—the U.S. military has spent much of the past 18 months struggling with the embarrassing consequences of everything from rape in the ranks to adultery at the most senior levels. For years, critics argued that the army, navy and air force did not pay enough attention to complaints from women.
But with women now making up almost 15 per cent of the 1.4 million members of the U.S. military, that, at least, is changing fast. The result is a force that, even many of its critics acknowledge, is now hypersensitive to any hint of sexual wrongdoing. “The U.S. military has learned an awful lot,” says Lory Manning, a former navy captain who tracks the issue for the Women’s Research and Education Institute in Washington. “The question is: will they still be so sensitive in three or four years?” Adds Linda Bird Francke, author of a 1997 study of gender relations in the military called “Ground Zero”: “The biggest change is that men—and women—are now being held accountable for their behavior.”
Sexual harassment in the U.S. military has captured headlines since at least 1991, when 83 female officers claimed to have been abused at a convention of naval and marine pilots—the so-called Tailhook scandal. The latest round began in November, 1996, when three drill sergeants at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, an army training base in Maryland, were charged with abusing female recruits under their supervision. One of them, Sgt. Delmar Simpson, was sentenced to 25 years for raping six female trainees. Testimony at his trial showed that he did not brutalize the women and they did not resist him. But the army charged him with rape anyway, on the grounds that the women were afraid to say no because of Simpson’s unique position of authority over them. In effect, the army redefined rape—prompting Simpson to appeal.
Other high-profile cases have been less clear-cut. The army’s most senior enlisted man, Army Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney, was tried on charges of coercing sexual favors from six women. The
women accused him of harassing or even assaulting them, and he faced as much as 55 years in prison. But in March, a military jury acquitted him of all charges except one—obstructing justice. The jury, it became clear, simply did not believe McKinney’s accusers. He was demoted to master sergeant and allowed to retire, leaving several of the women complaining that they had not been taken seriously.
Then there is the thorny issue of adultery. Air force Lieut. Kelly Flinn, the first woman to pilot a B-52 bomber, was forced out of the service last year after being charged with having an affair with a married civilian—then lying about it and disobeying an order to stop. Publicity surrounding Flinn’s case had unintended consequences. If a young (26-year-old) woman could be prosecuted for adultery, chorused the critics, then older men who traditionally got away with such behavior should be pursued as well. Several top officers had their careers ruined, inis eluding an air force general who was 3 in line to become chairman of the § Joint Chiefs of Staff until word I leaked out that he had had an affair 7 while separated from his wife, ï Another general retired early as commander of the Aberdeen Proving Ground after a tip to an army
sex-abuse hotline revealed that he, too, had had an affair. The string of scandals has left the U.S. military a bit sadder and, its critics agree, a bit wiser about the delicate task of managing relations between men and women. The veterans affairs department counsels female veterans for sexual trauma, and says that its caseload is up sharply—from 2,090 in 1993 to 9,000 last year. The army extended basic training from eight weeks to nine, with the extra week devoted to “values”—including advice to female recruits on how to report abuses. It also instituted more extensive background checks and psychological tests on candidates for drill sergeant. And in response to criticism that training men and women together is lowering standards, the Pentagon ordered all three services to introduce tougher physical fitness requirements.
Conservatives are pushing for more limits. Some point to the sex scandals as an argument against training women for combat, while others say men and women should be segregated during basic training. Defence Secretary William Cohen will not go that far, but in March he ordered the services to do more to separate male and female living quarters in boot camps. No one expects that will put out the fire of sexual scandal in the military; the hope is that it will at least lower the temperature.
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