Two Army trainers at Aberdeen Proving Ground have been charged with rape and other sexual offenses in a widening investigation that so far involves accusations from more than a dozen female recruits.
As many as 1,000 women who trained at the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and School since January 1995 are being questioned at bases all over the world where they reported after the program, Army officials said yesterday.
The allegations prompted the Army to announce servicewide sexual harassment training and to investigate other commands in an apparent effort to avoid the kind of repercussions faced by the Navy after the infamous 1991 Tailhook episode.
"This type of conduct strikes at the heart of our ability to provide safe and effective training for America's sons and daughters," said Maj. Gen. Robert D. Shadley, commander of the school, who has been in the military for three decades and could recall no similar case involving so many Army personnel. "This is the worst thing I've ever come across."
Facing courts-martial are Capt. Derrick Robertson, 30, of Joppatowne, who is charged with rape, adultery -- which is a crime under military law -- and obstruction of justice; and Staff Sgt. Delmar Simpson, 31, of Edgewood, charged with rape, forcible sodomy, adultery and obstruction of justice. Staff Sgt. Nathanael Beach, charged with obstruction of justice, improper relationship with a student and disobeying an order, also faces a court-martial. Two other Army trainers are receiving nonjudicial punishment for lesser offenses against the women recruits.
Simpson is being held at the Marine brig in Quantico, Va. The other two trainers are free while awaiting trial.
Army investigators have questioned 19 women who have gone absent without leave from Aberdeen in recent months, and some have said they fled because of intimidation from trainers, officials said.
Army officials said additional trainers may face charges in the investigation, which began in September when a recruit told Army investigators that she had been raped.
In an interview last night at his rented house, Robertson denied the rape charge but acknowledged that he had had an improper relationship with a woman this year that lasted for about a month.
"It began with her telling me how much she admired me, how compassionate I am and how she wanted to be with me and be in my life " said Robertson, who was dressed in fatigues and black Army boots. "I engaged in an improper relationship forbidden by regulations with her and that was it."
As to the rape charge, Robertson said: "It's a three-letter word, 'L-I-E,' lie." He said of his accuser, "She's made up a story out of anger, and now she's sticking to it."
An East Texas native who has been in the Army for 11 years, Robertson arrived at the school in December 1995 and is a company commander. He was placed on administrative leave in September, shortly after the investigation began.
"I was relieved of my command and rightfully so," Robertson said. "I crossed the line. I regret that I caused the negative attention to the United States Army."
Robertson said he is separated and in the midst of a divorce; neighbors said his wife and two daughters left in August to return to Texas.
The Aberdeen-based center is designed to give recruits three to eight weeks of training in mechanical maintenance of Army equipment, including small arms, vehicles and generators. About recruits, about 20 percent of them female, are trained by the 345 instructors each year.
The average age of the recruits is 21. Their instruction follows Army boot camp.
"We will continue to run down every lead at Aberdeen," Gen. William W. Hartzog said at a news conference at the Fort Monroe, Va., headquarters of the Training and Doctrine Command, which oversees all Army training. "America deserves better than this. Our soldiers deserve better than this and our Army is better than this."
Pvt. Kelly Ressegue of Elmwood Park, N.J., who is studying generator repair at Aberdeen, said that she and others were briefed repeatedly in recent weeks about sexual harassment issues.
She said she does not feel intimidated by the atmosphere at the school. But she added: "There is a military bearing we're supposed to uphold as soldiers in the United States Army."
Pvt. Luciana Rodriguez of Houston said she could understand how harassment could develop. "If you're like me, you might say, 'This is the Army. I'm going to try to do everything I can to stay here.' "
Stephanie Sites, who runs a sexual assault counseling program sometimes used by women from Aberdeen Proving Ground, said the military hierarchy can be abused to victimize women.
"If these are new recruits to the military, they've just come out of basic training and they've had it drilled into them that their superiors are God," said Sites, executive director of the Sexual -- Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center in Bel Air.
She said she was not aware of any pattern of complaints from trainees at the base.
Maj. Susan Gibson, deputy staff judge advocate at Aberdeen, said the base has "always had a very strong emphasis here on sexual harassment prevention.
"To say, 'How did it happen here?' is to say, 'How does it happen anywhere?' " she said.
Gibson said that the maximum penalty for rape in the Army is death, but that the aggravating factors for that to happen were not present in these cases, according to what investigators know at this point. That would mean the maximum sentence could be life in prison.
The Army's aggressive moves are an apparent effort to avoid a repeat of the Navy's 1991 Tailhook conference, where Navy women were assaulted by drunken aviators. That investigation was initially bungled by the Navy and its effects continue to reverberate through the service.
The Army announced yesterday a servicewide "Chain Teaching" ensure that a zero tolerance for sexual harassment reaches every officer and soldier. That effort is expected to be completed by March 1997.
Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army's chief of staff, said: "I am committed to working with my commanders to improve the programs and training already in place so that each soldier is treated with dignity and respect from the day he or she enters the reception station."
Separately, Shadley at the Aberdeen school said he will initiate an investigation to determine if any systemic problems could have fostered such behavior. The Army also will mount another investigation of other installations under the Training and Doctrine Command to see whether Aberdeen's problems are repeated elsewhere.
The investigation began on Sept. 11 after a recruit at the Aberdeen school told Army investigators that she had been raped, said an Army source. Nine agents descended on Aberdeen and so far have interviewed 550 Army personnel.
A team has been set up by the school to assist the victims and includes counseling from Aberdeen Proving Ground's health clinic, the chaplain's office and the legal office's victim/witness liaison program. A toll-free number has been set up to receive calls from victims, parents and anyone with information about the investigation. The number is (800) 903-4241.
Sexual harassment and misconduct remains a major problem in the military, according to a study released by the Pentagon in July.
In the largest survey of its kind, 55 percent of women in the military reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in the previous year, including rape, assault, groping and pressure for sexual favors. That was a drop of 9 percentage points from results of a 1988 survey.
The survey, to which about 47,000 military women and men responded, found that 78 percent of the women said they had experienced at least one of 25 kinds of behavior that ranged from suggestive talk to sexual assault. About one-third of those women said those experiences did not rise to the level of sexual harassment.
But while the Army has seen numerous sexual assault and sexual harassment cases in recent years, it has been widely praised for leading the military services in training and handling of complaints. In 1994, Congress ordered the Navy and Air Force to match the Army's sexual harassment rules, which set strict time limits for investigating complaints.
One of the Army's most serious cases occurred at two large bases in St. Louis, where investigators in 1992 found a "cesspool" atmosphere and scores of women complained of "open, vicious sexual harassment."
Last year, more than a dozen workers at the Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi filed a class action lawsuit alleging that they faced sexual innuendo, touching and grabbing on a daily basis.
Robertson, discussing the atmosphere between males and females at the Aberdeen training center, said: "You're hit on just about every day here and other places as well.
"It's human nature. I don't care who you are or where you are, sooner or later someone will find you attractive."
As for his accuser, he added, "I thought she was a very lovely person. I honestly believed her and I honestly trusted her."
He said he last saw the woman at a pretrial hearing on Oct. 9.
He said he felt he was being prejudged at the hearing and that military authorities already had decided to prosecute the case.
Pub Date: 11/08/96