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In Wake of Sex Scandal, Caution Is the Rule at Aberdeen

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 1997; Page B01

Army Capt. John Gillespie, a sure-footed company commander at Aberdeen Proving Ground, said he used to think nothing of seeing a male drill sergeant standing around talking to a female soldier.

But that was before Nov. 7, 1996, when the Army announced that three male trainers at the northern Maryland training base had been charged with rape, abuse and harassment of female soldiers under their supervision. Accusations against other soldiers followed, and the Army soon found itself in the middle of a scandal exposing rampant sex and abuse of authority among male drill sergeants and the female soldiers whose lives they virtually controlled.

"We were assuming it wasn't going on, and it all blew up in our faces," Gillespie said.

A year later, Gillespie is a different commander, more alert to the potential for sexual misconduct, and the Army is a different place for drill sergeants and recruits who cannot escape the lectures, the classes, the hyper-awareness about harassment and abuse.

But many of the larger issues of sexual discrimination in the Army remain -- chief among them whether enough jobs have opened to women. As a result, concerns persist about whether the abuse might return with time.

"Certainly it was important to bring to light the instances where women were being abused, but the soul-searching that has come as a result has raised some issues that we're still grappling with," said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington.

Soon after the initial charges against the first soldiers at Aberdeen were filed, the sex scandal widened to other training facilities across the country, as thousands of abuse complaints poured into a special Army hot line. Army investigators' interviews of every female soldier who had trained at Aberdeen since 1995 led to nine other trainers being charged with sex crimes.

Ultimately, one company commander and three drill sergeants were sent to prison, including Delmar G. Simpson, who was convicted of raping six women and sentenced to 25 years. The other eight defendants were discharged or punished administratively.

Three trainers in Gillespie's unit were caught up in the scandal, including one who was found to be part of a ring of drill sergeants who passed around lists of women who played their "game" of sexual conquest.

Since the Aberdeen scandal, the Army has assigned additional officers to training units so that commanders, such as Gillespie, can spend more time with soldiers. More chaplains have been assigned to give recruits another avenue to report problems and concerns.

"Before all of this, sexual harassment was never an issue, and now they stress it a lot," said Pfc. Lorre Hendricks, 17, who spent the summer at basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C., before returning to high school in New Jersey. "It's made the Army safer."

Gillespie said many of the problems that led to abuse have been resolved by enforcing policies that already were in place.

Soldiers never were allowed to visit a drill sergeant unaccompanied by another soldier, and drill sergeants were advised that the so-called buddy system was in their best interest as well, to protect them from false allegations.

The buddy system was in place before the scandals but not strictly enforced at Aberdeen. It is now, Gillespie said.

To eliminate the relaxed college-like environment so many of the recruits said existed during their training at Aberdeen, commanders no longer distribute as many weekend passes and instead fill idle time with more military training.

"It's totally business now," Gillespie said. "It's a lot tougher, and the drill sergeants are not as relaxed with the privates."

On the legal front, military law experts expect Simpson's rape convictions to be the subject of a long legal appeal. His attorneys have said they will file an appeal as soon as an official transcript of the original proceeding is available.

Simpson's conviction was the only case in which the Army was able to substantiate rape charges. The convictions hinged on a legal definition of constructive force, in which resistance or actual physical force is not necessary to prove rape.

Much of the sensation that came out of the Aberdeen trials revolved around Simpson's case.

Although several of his victims testified that they did not refuse their drill sergeant's advances, the jury convicted him of rape anyway.

Simpson admitted to having sex with five of his rape victims but denied that it was forced.

"I don't think you're going to find full closure on Aberdeen until this issue [concerning the legal definition of rape] is resolved," said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

Army leaders say they have taken several steps to deter abuse but acknowledge that only time will tell if they prove effective.

"We have a plan on the street," said Col. Herman Keizer Jr., a co-chairman of the Army's human relations task force. "The critical thing we have to do next is be able to say this has made a difference."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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