WASHINGTON — Allegations of rape and sexual harassment against US Army drill sergeants in Maryland and Missouri are unleashing a flood of complaints from female military personnel nationwide.
And they are raising questions about whether policies initiated by the Defense Department in the wake of the US Navy's Tailhook scandal have been effective in protecting female soldiers from illegal abuse by their male commanders.
The Army moved quickly earlier this week to respond to allegations that a drill instructor at the Aberdeen Proving Ground Ordinance Center in Maryland raped three female recruits and abused five others. Officials set up a toll-free hot line to help investigators identify victims and possible witnesses.
But what followed was a torrent of telephone calls. Many were related to questionable activities at the Aberdeen base, but the vast majority of the calls came from women at other bases and included women from all branches of the armed services.
"We are getting calls from all over the country," says Capt. Craig Minnick, an Army spokesman at Aberdeen. "Basically we've got investigators working here around the clock."
The scandals are sparking debate within the military. At Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., Private Sean McNeill says he wasn't surprised by reports of sexual misconduct. He says sex is a constant thought among soldiers. "When you're in the Army that's mainly what's on your mind. It's there. It's always going to be there."
Pvt. Lindsay Jose says both the male officers and the female recruits bear some responsibility for the scandal. "They should have known better," she says.
The Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines have all taken steps to instill in officers and enlisted men an understanding of the pernicious nature of sexual harassment. But studies suggest the lessons have not been learned.
A 1995 survey of 90,000 women in the military found that nearly 1 in 10 Army women had been sexually assaulted. And 60 percent of women in the Army reported they had been the victim of sexual harassment. Another study in 1995 concluded in part: "Sexual harassment is a problem in all services, and efforts to prevent it have not been totally effective."
The study continues: "Most victims did not take formal action because they anticipated a negative outcome."
Even the nation's military academies - where America's future military elite are groomed for service - were described in a 1994 government study as experiencing widespread sexual harassment of academy women. The academies include the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy, and West Point.
The study, by the General Accounting Organization, found that more than 93 percent of academy women had experienced at least one form of sexual harassment in 1991, and more than half of them faced such harassment at least twice a month. "Only a small fraction" of instances of sexual harassment are reported to authorities, the study says.
On a grass-roots level, the scandals are seen as an abuse of trust between drill sergeants and recruits.
To young men and women just joining the military, a drill sergeant is a combination of teacher, parent, counselor, task master, and the ultimate authority figure. The drill sergeant is the single most important person responsible for a recruit's transformation from scared kid to soldier.
"When you talk about drill instructors and training and older people being in with younger people it is the textbook example of power, particularly in these training environments," says Deborah Lee, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. "It is absolute power which can obviously create absolute fear and intimidation."
"The thing at Aberdeen is abuse of power," says a recently retired high-ranking Army officer. "If a drill sergeant tells [recruits] to stand on their heads, they will stand on their heads."
* Melissa Jaco in St. Louis contributed to this report.