From a nondescript three-story building on this military base south of Washington, Army detectives are trying to sort out one of the service’s largest scandals in decades.
The detectives, members of the Army Criminal Investigation Command, are focusing on accusations of sexual misconduct made by women at the Army’s Ordnance Center and School in Aberdeen, Md. Investigators have identified at least 51 women who may have been raped, assaulted or harassed, mostly in the last two years. More than 25 drill sergeants and other instructors are under investigation.
But the investigators have also fanned out to Army bases throughout the United States to interview the 990 women who have trained at Aberdeen since January 1995. So far, the agents have spoken to two-thirds of the women. One official close to the investigation said 21 accusations of misconduct, ranging from rape to indecent assault, have resulted from the interviews so far.
In addition, agents are responding to calls made to a special telephone line the Army established on Nov. 7 to report sexual assault and harassment. Of the nearly 6,600 calls the Army has received, investigators say about 950 are credible enough to pursue. One federal investigator said as many as half the complaints referred to incidents that happened before 1990, some dating to 1957.
Since the Army opened the inquiry at Aberdeen on Sept. 11, and then made it public in November, a majority of the command’s 650 agents based in the United States have been working the cases, at times logging 18-hour days and seven-day weeks. At Aberdeen alone, the number of agents ballooned to more than 30 from a normal complement of four at the base northeast of Baltimore.
“From everything I’ve seen, they seem to have their act together,” said one senior federal investigator familiar with the inquiry.
A lot of people are looking over the Army’s shoulder to see how it handles the cases. For many in Congress and at the defense department, the sexual misconduct at Aberdeen and other training bases is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Navy’s Tailhook scandal, in which drunken naval aviators assaulted scores of women at a convention in Las Vegas in 1991.
Brig. Gen. Daniel Doherty, who heads the command, has reviewed the investigative lessons learned from Tailhook. For example, the Army is assigning many of its 100 female agents to interview women bringing complaints, many of whom are only 17 or 18 years old.
Since 1992 the command has stepped up sensitivity training for its agents - both to curb misconduct by agents and to help investigators distinguish between complaints of sexual harassment, which the Army deals with administratively, and sexual assault, which is a felony.