December 26, 1996
In the past few months the service has been racked by a series of charges, some as serious as rape and sodomy. Betty Ann Bowser reports on the ongoing investigation and talks to a group of female soldiers.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Up until two years ago women in the army traditionally trained in all-female units. But in 1994, in what represented a major shift in policy, they were integrated into basic training groups with men. And for the first time their drill sergeants could also be men. The drill sergeant holds ultimate power and control over every young recruit. Most of the newcomers are under 20 years of age. Many have never been away from home before. The drill sergeant lives with the recruits, tells them when to get up, when to go to bed, when to eat. At the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, a group of young female soldiers charged that several drill sergeants and other trainers sexually harassed them. A number of women also claimed they were sodomized and raped by their male trainers. Army officials said they were alarmed and disturbed by the charges. They also promised to do something about it.
GEN. DENNIS REIMER, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army: All of us in the army are deeply troubled by the allegations of sexual misconduct and rape which occurred. That is unacceptable conduct for soldiers. It's unacceptable to the army. We are going to require that all of our soldiers go through another retraining period on what constitutes sexual harassment and the zero tolerance that the United States Army has for sexual harassment.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: As the scope of the army's investigation widened, more than 50 women made similar charges against male soldiers, most of them drill sergeants. In the weeks just after the Aberdeen incidents were made public, more than 5,000 women called the military hotline to complain of sexual harassment. The army says at least 800 of those calls are substantial enough to merit further investigation. The army already had indications that there was a problem. Last year when the Pentagon surveyed thousands of women in every branch of the service and asked them if they had been sexually harassed in the past year, more than 50 percent responded "yes," except in the air force. In the army alone 61 percent of the women responded "yes," but the army brass was encouraged because those numbers had actually gone down since 1988, when 68 percent of the women in the army said they'd been sexually harassed. But after the reports from Aberdeen, commanders at army installations all over the country were instructed to look at the problem with fresh eyes. Here at Fort Hood, Texas, formal sexual harassment complaints had been steadily decreasing since 1993. But when women were asked to participate in group sessions to talk about sexual harassment, officials said what they heard surprised them. The problem seemed more widespread than had previously been reported. And the perception of sexual harassment varied from soldier to soldier. Col. Randy Schoel heads public affairs at Fort Hood.
LT. COLONEL RANDY SCHOEL, U.S. Army: We were believing that we were doing okay, that we still had some problems but we were in most cases within the norms. However, when we went through the sensing sessions and talked with individuals, many people when asked, have you been a victim of, or have you experienced sexual harassment within the last 30 days, there were a lot of folks who said, yes.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: They also found out a lot of women just didn't report incidents.
LT. COLONEL RANDY SCHOEL: It's possible that they fear some form of reprisal, if they had come forward, or it's possible that they didn't have faith in their leaders, that their leaders would do anything about it. And we've got to take that pretty seriously because soldiers must depend upon their leaders to care for them, to understand them, be sympathetic for their needs.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In order to get a clearer picture of the situation at bases like Fort Hood, we talked to a group of women soldiers that ranged in age, experience, and rank. Major Gwen Bingham has been in the army for 15 years. She is currently in charge of a unit that specializes in army logistics. Staff Sergeant Vanessa Whittington, who's single, has been in the army for 11 years. She serves as a communications specialist. Sergeant Angela Erstad's been in the army for seven years. Single, she currently works as the chaplain's assistant. Sergeant Major Beth Howard has been in the army for 20 years. She is married, has two children, and serves as an operations manager. Staff Sergeant Sharon Leal has been in the army for six years and works in the accounting office at Fort Hood, and Lt. Deborah Crew is an electronic warfare officer who specializes in jamming enemy radar systems. She's been in the army for three years and is married to another officer.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ladies, thank you so much for being with us tonight. Were you surprised when you heard what had taken place at Aberdeen, or was this something that did not surprise you at all?
LT. DEBORAH CREW, U.S. Army: I know I wasn't surprised at all. I was disturbed by it, but I was not surprised.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Disturbed how?
LT. DEBORAH CREW: I guess the abuse of power and I mean, the shocking crime of it all, the level of it, I guess.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you think this kind of thing takes place every day, or do you think this is just an isolated incident?
SPOKESPERSON: It takes place.
STAFF SGT. VANESSA WHITTINGTON, U.S. Army: Sexual harassment, you mean?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Yes, ma'am.
STAFF SGT. VANESSA WHITTINGTON: I'm sure it takes place every day.
SGT. ANGELA ERSTAD, U.S. Army: Every day.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What makes you sure? I see two of you nodding over there.
SGT. MAJ. BETH HOWARD, U.S. Army: The army is like a large corporation. It's a big, big population. It happens in the civilian world. It happens in the military. I don't think we're any different.
LT. DEBORAH CREW: I mean, rape, I would hope that doesn't happen every day. I mean, sexual harassment on a, on a--I guess a lower level probably does, but, you know, I guess when I think of Aberdeen, I'm just thinking about the seriousness of it. And I would hope that doesn't happen every day. In my experience I have not seen that happen every day.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How much fear is there of reporting things like this?
SGT. ANGELA ERSTAD: I know from personal experience there's a big fear. Like you said before, if you're a lower enlisted, you don't know the regulations, you don't know what your chain of command can do for you, so when you are being sexually harassed, sometimes you get that fear that you're going to be the one that's going to be blamed, or fear that they're going to find out that you told on ‘em, or, you know, something like that, that you're the one that's going to be blamed basically, and, therefore, a lot of people keep it in. I know I did. I was sexually harassed twice. The first time was my first AIT, and I didn't do anything about it. The second one was my second AIT, and I--
BETTY ANN BOWSER: You need to clarify it for us, what that means.
SGT. ANGELA ERSTAD: Okay. AIT is Advanced Individual Training, and that's where you go to learn your job. And I was quiet about it because, like I said, I was a specialist. I didn't know my whole chain of command. I didn't know who I should go to and who I shouldn't. But luckily I had peers that did, and they told the drill sergeant, and he took it from there, and he--the man that was sexually harassing me, you know, he got in trouble for it. He got a formal letter of reprimand.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What happened to you? What did he do?
SGT. ANGELA ERSTAD: I don't like talking about it, but when I was in computer class he used to get real close behind my ear, and he used to whisper just creepy things. You know how people are creepy. He was really creepy, and he used to whisper things like, "I want you to come with me to my next duty station. You're going to be my chaplain assistant," and on and on and one, and I just, you know, I ignored it, and he'd always use my name. During training he'd always use my name and one time I was getting water in the hallway and there was nobody there, and he rubbed himself against me. And then during the sexual harassment class he asked me how--he wanted to prove a point that men and women were not equal, so we went in the back and we did push-ups. There was two males and myself, and when he finished proving his point, he shook my head. He shook everybody's hand, but when he shook mine--I don't know--when you're in high school if you know--little kids, they run their finger on your palm, and that's what he did to me, and I just--I just said that's enough, and that's when I told my peers, and they ended up telling the drill sergeant, and it kind of snowballed from there. The chain of command was real good about it, was real good. They acted accordingly on it. But as far as "his" peers, they didn't want to believe it.
STAFF SGT. SHARON LEAL, U.S. Army: Can I interject something?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sure.
STAFF SGT. SHARON LEAL: You'll notice that she said during the sexual harassment class, so the military starts out their training on that kind of thing from the very beginning, they start out trying to teach you that you have places that you can go to and you can file complaints. I think the military, the army is very proactive. They're not afraid to come out and say, hey, we're not doing a good job here, we need to change this.
STAFF SGT. VANESSA WHITTINGTON: They give us training, no doubt about that. A lot of soldiers, they don't understand it, or they're just afraid to tell. You know, they don't want to stir up trouble. A lot of people they don't feel they can trust, you know. We have to make our environment more comfortable for the younger soldiers for them to even want to come to us to tell us, you know, there's a problem.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Talk to me a little bit about the atmosphere in which young women, young women come into the army, they go into basic training. A number of these alleged incidents have occurred between drill instructors, drill sergeants, and young female recruits. What is it like to be eighteen or nineteen years or old and to be in that environment?
STAFF SGT. VANESSA WHITTINGTON: Well, you're away from home. A lot of people that come in are from small towns, so a lot of stuff is new to them, and they're naive about a lot of things. They don't know their rights, and they're just accepting what this drill sergeant's telling them because that whole time, you know, I mean, it's just like the old saying goes, you know, I'm your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, and they tell them what to do, how, you know, when to go to sleep, when to get up, you know, when you're going to take your shower. They just rule everything you do, so you just take whatever they give you and believe whatever they say to you. And you don't know to go to the next person and say, well, this is what's going on, is this right, you know, so they're more vulnerable to sexual harassment as opposed to me, myself, you know. I've been in 11 years, so they're probably saying, well, she knows what's going on; she might tell. But the younger soldiers, they don't know what's going on.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is the army pretty much a male-dominated organization, and if you think so, does that contribute to this problem? How about you, Lieutenant?
LT. DEBORAH CREW: All you have to do is look through history, and traditionally it was a male career field, and I think that on occasion it does contribute to it because I think there are some males who do not see--maybe their vision of the army doesn't include women and so, therefore, if it doesn't include women, you can discriminate against them, you can harass them, you can do whatever it takes, because they're not--they shouldn't be there anyway. They're putting themselves out there for you.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you think that that contributes at all to these incidents that we're now hearing about involving sexual harassment and even rape?
LT. DEBORAH CREW: Well, it gives them the power to commit sexual harassment, no doubt about that, so I guess in that sense it does contribute, but, you know, just like we talked about, I mean, you can be sexually harassed in the grocery store, and, you know--
SGT. ANGELA ERSTAD: Anywhere you go.
LT. DEBORAH CREW: --that's not a male-dominated environment.
SGT. MAJ. BETH HOWARD: I think it changes the disciplines. Basically, obviously only 20 to 22 percent are women, so, yes, there are a lot of men, but it changes.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How has it changed for you in the time that you've been in the service?
SGT. MAJ. BETH HOWARD: Well, I can remember coming in and being told by my drill sergeant, a female drill sergeant, by the way, that basically we were there because were whores, lesbians, or looking for a husband, not there to be professionals, and--
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How long ago was that?
SGT. MAJ. BETH HOWARD: That's 20 years ago. It's 1976. And then we went on through basic training. Then, I mean, the last job I walked into was the first one I didn't have to prove that I knew what I was doing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And how long ago was that?
SGT. MAJ. BETH HOWARD: Well, when I got here at Fort Hood, so--about seven, eight months ago.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Have any of the others of you felt that kind of an attitude in the time you've been in the service?
MAJ. GWEN BINGHAM, U.S. Army: Well, I'd like to say I agree or I feel that it is a male-dominated organization simply by the sheer numbers, but I would like to say too that, for instance, at one time in the last three to four years I was in a battalion where the battalion commander was a female. I am currently in a headquarters where one of the senior 06 commanders is a female, so there are certainly a number of role models that are out there. So I'd like to think that there have been grave, drastic improvements in terms of females and key roles and supervisory roles, command roles. So while Sgt. Maj. Howard indicated that perhaps was the army of the past, I certainly have a vote of confidence that that has changed or is changing and to the better.
SGT. MAJ. BETH HOWARD: We're valued in the jobs we're in. And a lot of different disciplines could do not do their jobs if we were not there. But you get down to that maneuver battalion that is all male, and there are some women who can do those jobs.
MAJ. GWEN BINGHAM: And what to do them.
SGT. MAJ. BETH HOWARD: And want to. And that's the most important--
SGT. ANGELA ERSTAD: They should be given the opportunity.
MAJ. GWEN BINGHAM: That's the key.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Does the fact that there "are" those jobs--I'm talking about the infantry--that women can't do, or are not allowed to do--does that contribute to an atmosphere that potentially encourages the types of incidents we've been discussing tonight?
SGT. MAJ. BETH HOWARD: I think it contributes to an ignorance of what women really can do if they're capable and given the chance. And ignorance in and of itself will lead to that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you as women soldiers think the army needs to do about it?
SGT. ANGELA ERSTAD: Education.
STAFF SGT. VANESSA WHITTINGTON: Education.
SGT. ANGELA ERSTAD: Just more. More start from the basic training.
LT. DEBORAH CREW: I think at an army level a lot has been done, but it really is up to those individual commanders that, you know, have these drill sergeants underneath them to check and make sure that they are not abusing the power because they do have so much.
STAFF SGT. SHARON LEAL: And you make sure that you know what's going on with your soldiers; you make sure that you're taking care of them. And if you do that, then you stop that problem right there.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ladies, thank you very much for being with us tonight.