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Women as Equals

Mitsubishi. Astra USA. Gruntal & Company. The focus, last year, was on sexual harassment in the workplace, both blue collar and white. Now it's on the military, specifically the Army. On Tuesday a court-martial jury sentenced a drill sergeant from the Aberdeen Training Ground in Maryland to 25 years in prison for raping six female trainees as well as other sexual offenses.

Sadly, all these cases underscore the often-aggressive sexual harassment still faced by women, especially in traditionally male occupations. A 1995 survey of 90,000 women in the military, for example, found that nearly 1 in 10 Army women had been sexually assaulted. Sixty percent reported that they had been victims of sexual harassment.

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The question at the Aberdeen trial centered on what constitutes rape. If a woman doesn't say "no," if she doesn't resist, is the sex consensual? Wisely, the jury took into serious consideration the atmosphere in which these women live. At military training bases, drill sergeants have near total control over the lives of young male and female soldiers. Referring to the defendant Staff Sgt. Delmar Simpson, the prosecution said: "This is a case of the accused using his power, his easy access, and his ability to control ... to force his sexual attentions on trainees."

The former drill sergeant clearly did much more than violate the Army rule prohibiting sex between superiors and subordinates. Ultimately Mr. Simpson was the one in charge, and he used that authority unscrupulously to his advantage. Before his sentencing, Simpson apologized to the trainees by saying, "I was your drill sergeant and I failed you."

Simpson was one of 12 staff members at Aberdeen charged with sexual offenses. Those cases prompted investigations into sexual misconduct at US military bases worldwide.

Before the scandal broke last November the Army believed that it was on its way toward finding a comfortable coexistence between male and female soldiers. To its credit, it acted swiftly in dealing with the problem, including taking the investigation public and establishing a national toll-free hot line for complaints of sexual harassment and abuse. Now it must determine whether its experiment of training men and women together has failed. The Marine Corps separates the sexes in training, and the Army might decide that it should too.

That might alleviate the problem, but it won't solve it. What's needed is an even louder insistence on the equality of women, a message that insult and assault will never be tolerated. Last fall the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services looked at ways to encourage women to be more assertive in defending themselves. It recommended establishing a formal mentoring program to help female soldiers. The Army would do well to consider the idea more seriously.

"People who wear our nation's uniform have a responsibility to abide by the highest personal standard of conduct," says Rep. Robert Ehrlich (R) of Maryland. That standard should hold true not only for the military, but for society as a whole. The military, businesses, and schools can adopt codes of behavior to discourage sexual harassment, but such codes won't work until soldiers, businesspeople, and students abide by the kind of "personal standard of conduct" the congressman was referring to.

After Simpson's sentencing, Lt. Col. Gabriel Riesco, chief of staff at the Ordnance Center and School at Aberdeen, said, "This is a case about abuse of power. This should be a flare in the night." We hope that flare will be seen beyond the Army's walls.

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