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Some Privates on Base Once Skeptical of Lurid Rumors

Military: Army investigators, however, took tales of sex harassment seriously. Three soldiers now face charges.

November 09, 1996|SHERYL STOLBERG and MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ABERDEEN, Md. — For months, there were whispers among the young women who arrived for technical training at the Army's sprawling Aberdeen Proving Ground on the shore of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay.

This was a base rife with fraternization, the rumors, went--forbidden, and sometimes unwanted, sexual contact between senior soldiers and fledgling recruits.

"I had been hearing things about it from other privates," said Pvt. Stacey Stuard, 20, who has been in the Army five months. "But I didn't believe any of it. It was just a bunch of privates talking."

Said her friend, Pvt. Regina Morgan, 18: "People told us that privates tell stories."

But while these brand new soldiers--fresh out of boot camp and often still in their teens--dismissed what they were hearing, Army criminal investigators have not.

The stories Stuard and Morgan initially cast aside as tall tales form the backbone of a burgeoning sexual harassment scandal in which supervising soldiers are alleged to have systematically taken advantage of the vulnerable female recruits they were entrusted to train.

So far, 19 women have come forward to say that they were subjected to sexual harassment by their superiors, raising charges that range from receiving unwanted love notes to rape. Hundreds more have yet to be interviewed.

Three soldiers--a captain and two drill sergeants--face court-martial proceedings on charges ranging from obstruction of justice to sodomy and rape; one of them has been packed off to a military jail in Quantico, Va., after he was accused of intimidating one of his victims. Two others face nonjudicial charges. Still others--the Army would not say how many--have been suspended from dealing with recruits while allegations against them are being investigated. As the inquiry widens, Army officials say they expect to file additional charges.

Meanwhile, the commander of the 94-year-old training school is publicly wringing his hands. Maj. Gen. Robert D. Shadley went before the national media Friday, clearly distraught at the thought that his underlings might have crossed one of the military's most clearly defined boundaries: the taboo against sexual contact between soldiers of different ranks.

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"This is absolutely deplorable," Shadley said. "We as leaders have a responsibility to take care of our soldiers, and it breaks your heart when we don't. . . . We want those individuals out in front of our soldiers . . . to be leaders and not lechers."

For the military, the scandal at the Aberdeen Proving Ground Ordnance Center and School is bound to evoke memories of the painful Tailhook debacle that has rocked the Navy for five years and that, some believe, contributed to the suicide of the Navy's top officer earlier this year.

But Army officials insisted that there are clear differences. Navy officials throughout the chain of command were charged with covering up or tolerating the harassment of female naval officers at the 1991 Tailhook Assn. convention in Las Vegas.

Army officials said that they have acted aggressively to comfort the victims at Aberdeen and to catch the perpetrators. They already have interviewed 550 women and are planning to talk to 500 more who have left Aberdeen for bases throughout the world.

Investigators tracked down some women who had been absent without leave to see if their unexplained departures were the result of sexual harassment--and discovered that it had sometimes been the case. Shadley arranged for those women to receive "hardship discharges" and back pay.

"This is clearly a case where the chain of command is taking this thing by the horns," said Lt. Col. Gabriel Riesco, one of the legal officers overseeing the investigation. "We're throwing a wide net out there. . . . We want to catch all those little suckers."

But while Army leaders, new recruits and many male soldiers are professing shock at the disclosures, some seasoned female soldiers seem hardly taken aback.

"I wasn't surprised," said Sgt. Evelyn Bailey, who has spent four years in the Army. "I just left Ft. Jackson [S.C.] and the same thing has been going on there. Men are men everywhere, whether they're in the Army or civilians."

Said one woman who is at Aberdeen for officer training: "You get so used to it. You don't pay any attention to it anymore. But it's real." She added that Army women frequently do not report instances of sexual harassment. "You don't want to ruin a guy's career--or have him ruin yours."

According to this woman, female recruits on the base were assembled Thursday, before public announcement of the investigation. They were informed of the charges and told that the soldiers involved had been removed from their commands and reassigned to other jobs.

Most women, she said, were skeptical that the Army recognized the full extent of the problem. "You know how men think," she said. "They always think we're making up stuff."

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