News

Rape In The Ranks

LAST YEAR A SMALL, UNDERFUNDED army office on the Pentagon's second floor scraped together $150,000 and hired some actors to make a training film on sexual harassment. One part of the video-dubbed Scenario No. 6--depicts a tense encounter between a drill sergeant and a woman recruit ("Private Keller") who is trouble making it through an obstacle course. The sergeant dismisses his platoon, tells Keller to stay behind-and makes a thinly veiled demand for sex. "You need to pass this course," he says, "and I need... well, I think you know what I need." The trainee returns to her barracks and talks it over with another female recruit. If she reports the incident, the sergeant can ruin her career--and if she doesn't give in, he will only keep on harassing her. The film, not yet widely distributed by the army, concludes with the young private reporting the threat. By eerie coincidence the video was shot on location at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.-- the same post where, a new military sex scandal suggests, real-life encounters between female soldiers and their drill sergeants were far more brutal.

Pvt. Jessica Bleckley is one of 19 victims of what is now known as the Aberdeen rape ring. Bleckley, only 17, told ABC News last week that she became a target of unwanted sexual advances from 10 different sergeants and that she finally gave in to one of them, Nathanael Beach. When she warned Beach she would report him, Bleckley recounted, "he started calling me and saying... if I told anybody that he would cut my throat, that he knew ways of killing people where no one would find out who did it."

Blecldey described an even worse incident allegedly involving Drill Sgt. Delmar Simpson. She said she was doing office work one day when Simpson, whom she did not know, ordered her to go into a bathroom. "A few minutes later he came in behind me, and that's when he started telling me to do certain things." The "certain things," she said, were taking off her clothes-after which she had sex with Simpson on the bathroom floor. Bleckley said she did not want intercourse with Simpson but did not tell him to stop "because he's extremely aggressive... just a very mean person."

The brass at Aberdeen first learned about the rape ring in early September, when several of the victims decided to make a stand. "There was a woman who was gutsy enough to go through the chain of command and not get stopped," a senior official said. The resulting investigation is now roiling the U.S. Army. What seemed at first to be a local scandal involving two rogue sergeants has quickly escalated into an army-wide manhunt for suspected rapists. There are two reasons for this--one praiseworthy and the other terrifying. The good news is that the Pentagon, from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili on down, is taking the Aberdeen scandal seriously: the brass, remembering the navy's disastrous Tail-hook cover-up, insists there will be no whitewash. The frightening part is that the preliminary results of the current investigation, coupled with the army's own statistics, strongly suggest that rape is a major problem for the military--that thousands of military women are sexually assaulted every year, and that the army and other branches of the uniformed services do a wretched job of investigating, prosecuting and deterring this violent crime.

A BERDEEN, IN SHORT, IS POTENtially far more serious than Taft-hook ever was. ,Tailhook rightly outraged womens-rights activists because it revealed the navy's cavalier attitude toward raunchy, loutish behavior by drunken fighter jocks who assaulted women--and because the brass then tried to cover it all up. But the amy's problem is rape, which is intolerable in any setting. How bad is it? According to an army survey conducted in 1995, 4 percent of all female soldiers reported that they had been the victim of an actual or attempted rape or a sexual assault within the previous 12 months. That is nearly 10 time s higher than the incidence of rape and sexual assault in civilian life, according to a 1995 victims' survey by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

At Aberdeen itself, 19 women trainees have filed rape or sexual-assault complaints and nearly 20 noncommissioned officers are now under investigation. Simpson has been charged with rape, forcible sodomy, assault and threats. Beach was charged with adultery, fraternization, lying and making threats. (Lawyers for both men admit theirclients had sex with recruits but say the sex was consensual.) Their company commander, Capt. Derrick Robertson, has been charged with rape, forcible sodomy and obstruction of justice. (He admits having sex with one trainee but says it was consensual.) Administrative action has already been taken against two other sergeants, and 15 non-coms have been suspended from duty pending further investigation.

A telephone hot line set up to collect other rape and sexual-harassment complaints, meanwhile, has produced a staggering number of new allegations. The hot line, operating from Aberdeen, collected some 4,000 calls in the first week alone--and of these, 500 were deemed serious enough to warrant further investigation. Just more than 100 came from women stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground; the rest came from army posts elsewhere and from women in other service branches. NEWSWEEK has learned that spinoff investigations are currently underway at seven army bases: Fort Hood and Fort Sam Houston in Texas; Fort Huaehuea, Ariz.; Fort Lee, Va.; Fort Gordon, Ga.; Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and Fort lackson, S.C. Army officials said two rapes allegedly occurred at Fort Jackson after the Aberdeen scandal broke, and sources say there are frequent rapes in the woods surrounding the base. Charges against an unspeeitied number of drill sergeants, instructors and some male trainees could be filed within days, army sources said.

One of the ugliest aspects of the unfolding scandal is the fact that the bad guys, in many cases, were drill instructors. Though their conduct is strictly governed by army regulations--hitting, swearing or even touching a trainee is wholly forbidden--drill instructors are godlike figures to any recruit. The DI is part boss, part teacher, part parent; he or she can ruin your military career. As a result, male clrill instructors with a yen to coerce sex from female re-emits are in a perfect position to do so. Last week a drill sergeant at Fort Leonard Wood, Staff Sgt. Loren B. Taylor, pleaded guilty to having sex with three women recruits and making improper advances to two others. "This was my drill sergeant, and in a way I guess! thought I owed it to him," said Pvt. Joy Paulsen, 21. Paulsen said Taylor used his authority to make her life "a lot easier" during basic training, although she insisted that their sexual contacthad gone no further than kissing. But other women testified to having had sex with Taylor, who was stripped of his rank and sentenced to five months in prison and will get a bad-conduct discharge. The investigation at Fort Leonard Wood has led to charges against two other sergeants, and seven drill sergeants have been suspended.

The women, in many cases, are too afraid of reprisals to speak out. At Aberdeen, according to army documents, both Delmar Simpson and Nathanael Beach used death threats to keep their victims in line. "If anyone finds out about me having sex with you, I'll kill you," Simpson allegedly told one woman. To another he allegedly said, "Now I'm going to knock your teeth out-and get away with it." NEWSWEEK has learned that though Simpson was a stielder for the rules who cracked down hard on minor infractions, he himself had a poor disciplinary record that included abusing sick leave and going absent without leave (AWOL, in army slang). "He was just an evil man, that's all I'm going to say," one woman trainee told NEWSWEEK. "He never touched me or anything like that, but he came damn dose." Some of the trainees were so worried that they went AWOL to escape the sergeants, and one woman tried to commit suicide. NEWSWEEK has learned that several of the women attempted to report the abuses long before the first formal charge was filed in September-but, according to a senior army source, their complaints were "deep-sixed at a low level."

Confidential army case files obtained by NEWSWEEK record a longstanding problem with rape throughout the service. Women soldiers have been raped in their rooms, in the shower, even out of doors while on field maneuvers. The offenders hold every enlisted rank and include at least some officers. A Veterans Administration study found that one in four women veterans said they had been raped or sexually assaulted while on active duty, and the VA has opened 69 centers nationwide to treat the victims for post-traumatic stress syndrome; so far, these centers have seen some 5,000 women. At least two women soldiers involved in sexual-harassment cases have committed suicide.

Retha Wilson, a former army enlisted woman, told ABC's "20/20" she was trapped in a motel room with drill instructor Ted Sinclair. "He started beating me up and using a gun... for leverage or whatever, to attack. And he just ripped my clothes off and threw me on the bed. And continued to rape me. I seriously thought I was gonna die." When it was over, Wilson said, Sinclair "jumped up and pointed the gun at me, and it was still cocked, and he told me if I moved or left the room... before sunlight he would kill me." Sinclair was caught, convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Wilson, according to ABC, was so traumatized she still needs tranquilizers.

The fact that Retha Wflson's attacker was caught and convicted is what makes her story rare-for the army's track record in prosecuting rape cases is nothing to brag about. There is an irony in this, because army regulations on sexual harassment have been so widely praised that Congress ordered the navy and the air force to adopt them. "One of the reasons we've done so well with [sexual harassment policies] publicly is that everyone knows the army wants to do the right thing," says Sara Lister, an assistant army secretary. But other officials say the reality on the grunt level, where men and women work and live together, is very different. "The policies are OK," one senior officer says. "It's the execution [at the unit level]-- that's where the problems are." And Alison Ruttenberg, a major in the Colorado Air National Guard and a lawyer who specializes in sexual-harassment cases, says she sees only "lip service" in the army's willingness to protect women soldiers from retaliation when they complain about sexual misconduct by the men.

There are, as always, plausible explanations for the army's failure. Rape is a tough crime to investigate and an even tougher one to prove. Budget pressures have gutted the army's rape-prevention programs and decimated the office responsible for monitoring sex-related misconduct; Pentagon brass, gulled by the army's good press on sexual-harassment issues, probably let its guard down. Senior field commanders are consumed by the need to maintain combat readiness and may sometimes be too willing to believe that a woman who cries rape actually consented to have sex.

The army, in short, is still a male-dominated institution struggling with the complex burdens of integrating women into the ranks. The rape scandal will almost certainly revive debates about women in uniform and in combat, making the army's cultural transition even rougher. But rape is rape. And unless Americans want to eliminate women from the military altogether, the Pentagon has a duty to protect them.

Sexual harassment in the armed forces is not news to women in the military, or to the Defense Department. A 1995 Pentagon survey of 90,000 active-duty service members indicated that violations had declined since a 1988 study but remained high. Some of the '95 figures:



Fitzsimmons Army Hospital          Ft. Hood



Ft. Leonard Wood                   Ft. Gordon 



Ft. Huachuca                       Ft. Jackson



Ft. Sam Houston                    Lackland AFB



Aberdeen Proving Ground            Ft. Lee


Percentage of women in each 



service reporting harassment: 







Marines       64 percent



Army          61 percent



Navy          53 percent



Air Force     49 percent


Actual or attempted rape/assault    4 percent



Pressure for sexual favors         11 percent



Touching, cornering                29 pereent



Looks, gestures                    37 percent



Letters, calls                     12 percent



Pressure for dates                 22 percent



Teasing, jokes                     44 percent



Whistles, calls                    23 percent


Military co-workers                44 percent



Higher-ranking personnel           43 percent



Other military persons             24 percent



Immediate supervisor               18 percent



Military subordinates              10 percent


All or most on duty                77 percent



       Some on duty                13 percent 



       None on duty                 9 percent


Encouraged to drop complaint       10 percent



Complaint not taken seriously      23 percent



Supervisor was hostile             12 percent



No action was taken                15 percent



Accused was talked to              50 percent



Accused was counseled              20 percent







MAP: Showing facilities facing new allegations of harassment and abuse