Fort Meade workers defend colonel


The garrison commander of Fort Meade, under investigation for allegedly using profanity and telling lurid stories in speeches at the post, is getting support from employees who deny his remarks were offensive or constituted sexual harassment.

Rather, they said, Col. Robert G. Morris III gave an "uplifting" talk using strong language that convinced them the Army post, itself the subject of seven criminal investigations, will be cleaned up.

"He was giving his philosophy on what would really upset him," said Joan Daughety, chief of non-appropriated funds in the civilian personnel office. "His method of saying it may have been to some unorthodox, but he was trying to say that he cares about people."

Ms. Daughety, who has worked at Fort Meade for 15 years, said media accounts of the alleged incidents have "ruined his career. To say in any way that it was sexual harassment is preposterous."

The investigation, undertaken by the 1st U.S. Army inspector general's office, was triggered by an anonymous letter signed only, "a concerned soldier." The letter, also sent to The Sun, details incidents in which Colonel Morris reportedly used profanity while addressing civilians at the Post Theater in August and told lurid stories about Army nurses at the Officers' Club in September.

Lt. Col. Baxter Ennis, a spokesman for the 1st U.S. Army, confirmed last week that the anonymous letter triggered the probe, which could be completed within two weeks.

Colonel Morris, who has refused to be interviewed about the charges, apologized to civilian workers during another meeting in the theater last week, saying he was sorry if he offended anybody. He released a statement saying he did not feel anything he said could be construed as sexual harassment.

"I was one of those at the meeting, and I am a Christian," said Evon Dixon, a housing service technician in the Directorate of Public Works. "But I wasn't offended by what he said. You hear that kind of talk on the street every day."

Other workers said the employees in their particular offices were angered over the investigation and news reports.

Bonnie Copeland, who works in the civilian personnel office, said that while Colonel Morris "did use a couple of cuss words," neither she nor her friends took offense.

"He seemed to be very upset at the problems on post and that they have gone on for so long," Ms. Copeland said. "The civilians were cheering. I liked what he had to say. He seemed willing to listen to us."

She said that after the morning meeting, Colonel Morris was told to tone down his presentation. "Once he was talked to, he didn't use any profanity at all."

None of the employees interviewed, many of whom called The Sun, said they knew anything about Colonel Morris' second talk -- in September at the Officers' Club, in which he allegedly told lurid stories about Army nurses while discussing the Persian Gulf war.

Military officials agreed it is inappropriate and unprofessional for officers to use profanity in front of groups, especially civilian audiences. But those who know Colonel Morris said he is still trying to adjust to running a post where civilian employees outnumber soldiers 5,000 to 300.

"Many in the community think Fort Meade is there to serve them," said retired Lt. Gen. James H. Johnson, who brought Colonel Morris to Fort Meade from New Jersey, where he was the senior Army adviser to that state's National Guard. "That is a self-serving attitude. It is prevalent in the civilian work force."

General Johnson, interviewed by phone from his home in Sarasota, Fla., said the colonel may be having a hard time adjusting.

"You have to remember that he spent 20 to 25 years dealing with troops," the general said. "Not to excuse this kind of behavior, but that kind of talk goes on with troops. And it is accepted by troops. When dealing with civilians, certainly you have to be more sensitive, especially because there are so many females. But those are the changes coming to the military. You have got to be able to adjust."

But, the general added, "If he did it, there is no excuse for that, and he will have to suffer the consequences."

Colonel Morris came to Fort Meade in the middle of several investigations into fraud, waste, abuse, violations of federal environmental law, racism and sexual harassment. Fort Meade officials say there are 17 probes going on -- seven criminal and 10 administrative.

Trying to improve the atmosphere is upsetting those who took advantage of their government jobs, the colonel's supporters say. Trying to besmirch the colonel's reputation may be one way of getting back.

"He was put in here to clean up a mess," Ms. Daughety said. "He has had to make some difficult decisions."

Lonnie Howie, president of Local 1622 of the the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 2,000 civilian workers at Fort Meade, said he has never received a complaint about Colonel Morris using profanity.

"It shocked me when I read the article," he said. "I have never heard him tell lurid stories like that. There is a witch hunt against the colonel, that's what people are saying. Somebody is out to get him."

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