Conviction Sends Message, But Will Army Brass Listen?

As first Aberdeen trial winds up, some question whether the Army is learning its lesson.

The US Army has sent a clear message that abuse of authority by men over women will not be tolerated at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

But what about alleged sexual abuse and rape at other US military bases around the world?

Analysts who have been following the trial of Staff Sgt. Delmar Simpson, who was convicted Tuesday on charges that he raped female trainees under his command, say it remains unclear whether the wider message of the Army's biggest sex scandal will hit home with military leaders and female soldiers.

They say the Army's leadership must take steps to address systemic problems that led to rampant, illicit sexual relations at Aberdeen between trainees and their instructors.

These analysts also say the Army must find a way to convince its female soldiers that they will not suffer professionally if they report sexual harassment, assaults, or rape by their superiors.

"Leadership is the key in all this. Not only saying the words, but doing the things that tell the troops that [the command] takes this seriously," says Georgia Sadler, director of the Women in the Military Project at the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington. "If there is a sense that the leadership doesn't care, then there are going to be big problems."

Compared with the US Navy's coverup and lack of action during the Tailhook scandal in the early 1990s, the US Army's Aberdeen scandal has been handled relatively well, these analysts say.

But it isn't over.

At least two more cases of Aberdeen drill sergeants accused of rape are pending. Also, an investigation is under way into possible sexual harassment by the sergeant major of the Army - the Army's top enlisted man. And there are nearly 500 criminal investigations pending of sexual misconduct and assault allegations reported from bases around the world through a hot line initially set up for calls related to the Aberdeen case. Most recently, reports have surfaced of alleged sexual harassment of women at Army recruiting offices.

Not all observers are applauding Simpson's rape convictions at Aberdeen. Some opponents of women serving in the military point to the case as evidence of a basic incompatibility of men and women serving together as soldiers.

Others, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), question whether race played a role in the Army's decision to pursue rape charges against Simpson and other drill instructors at Aberdeen. All those charged at Aberdeen are black, and many of their alleged victims are white.

"So far the Army seems to have focused its prosecutions on African-American noncommissioned officers," says Sam Diener of the CCCO. "We are getting calls from people who were assaulted by white officers where prosecutions are not proceeding."

MR. DIENER says his organization maintains a nationwide hot line and receives calls every day from female soldiers trying to deal with sexual harassment or assault. "I think Aberdeen is symptomatic of what is going on in the military," he says. "The individual case may be extreme but the problem of the systemic abuse of women in the military is pervasive."

A special review panel was appointed last fall by the secretary of the Army to investigate sexual harassment and abuse in the Army. The panel is expected to issue a report with recommendations in June.

Nancy Duff Campbell of the National Women's Law Center in Washington says that for her the jury is still out over whether the Army is serious about attacking the problem.

"To me much of the proof will be in how they look at this systematically and what kind of procedures they install to keep these abuses from happening," she says.

Some analysts suggest that complaints by female soldiers should be investigated and prosecuted by a civilian oversight agency, outside the military chain of command. They say until such an agency is in place, women in the military will be reluctant to report sexual misconduct.

Karen Johnson, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and a vice president at the National Organization for Women, says that until civilian oversight is established, "the military is nothing more than an accessory to the abuse of their own soldiers."

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