The Army leadership is struggling to deal with a sexual harassment problem that surprised top brass with its extent and has threatened the service's relations with Congress and its very image in the eyes of the American public.
Reports released yesterday conclude something that news reports have long indicated: Sexual misconduct in the Army is widespread, and commanders have failed to respond effectively to complaints of harassment.
Yet altering a deep-seated military culture is a difficult business. Among report recommendations: Closer screening of drill sergeant candidates, as many of the alleged incidents took place during basic training. The brass is also moving to exert more control over the training atmosphere by establishing a three-star general post that will oversee these crucial introductory weeks.
"I think this is the least flashy, but most important reform, because you will no longer have these little [training] empires out there," says just-Ret. Army Lt. Col. Tom Wall, who commanded a training battalion at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C.
Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered the reports amid a series of sexual misconduct scandals that began last November at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in Maryland, where female trainees leveled misconduct charges against drill sergeants.
The scandals ignited a nationwide debate on sexual misconduct in the military and prompted some in Congress to call for an end to gender-integrated training.
In addition to finding widespread sexual misconduct, the reports highlight flaws in the selection of drill sergeants, saying there is insufficient screening of disciplinary records and a lack of rigorous psychological testing.
"It should have been that way all the time," says Mr. Wall of the call for screening drill sergeants. "We just got lazy."
Other findings of the reports include a lack of widespread commitment within the Army to its Equal Opportunity Program and "distrust" among soldiers of the system through which sexual harassment complaints are handled.
Policies against sexual misconduct are selectively enforced by chains of command, and commander's inattention to troops prevent them from accurately assessing adherence to those policies, the reports found.
Reaction to the plan has been mixed. Jane Harman (D) of California, a member of the House National Security Committee, says the new recommendations "may well change the face of the Army." She lauds the fact that the values training will "start before a recruit is sworn in and will continue as a soldier rises through the ranks." She cautions, however, that a key to success will be in how well the Army carries out the new regimen.
Nancy Duff Campbell, president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington, argues far more is needed than sensitivity training.
"You have to have something more than values training," she says. "You've got to know it's wrong to discriminate." She says new recruits know what harassment is. The problem is "they don't have any confidence that their leadership takes it seriously and that the complaint system will work if they make a complaint."
Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Preparedness, a conservative think tank, criticizes the reports for not addressing the problem of inappropriate fraternization between senior and subordinate officers. "At the Aberdeen hearings there was a lot of testimony about female soldiers seeking special favors by giving sexual favors," says Ms. Donnelly.
* David Moniz and staff writers Alexandra Marks and Lawrence J. Goodrich contributed to this report.