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HR Magazine, September 2001 - Cover Story

   9/1/2001
 

HR Magazine, September 2001Vol. 46, No. 9

Todays Aberdeen is light years away from the lax, college-like environment that existed at the time of the much-publicized scandal that rocked this Army facility in the mid-1990s.

The sites 930 male and 99 female trainees pursue their training in a closely supervised mixed-gender environment under the watchful eyes of drill sergeants, instructors and officers. The soldiers are organized by platoon, company and battalion. Two battalions, the 16th and 143rd, together make up the 61st Ordnance Brigade, which is run by Col. John Rocky Hills.

Hills is unstinting in his commitment to gender equality and mutual respect, and everyone around him seems to know it. You cant pay lip service, he says. It cant be just a poster. You have to make it a real priority.

And Hills appears to have done just that. Despite budget cuts averaging 10 percent over the past few years, he has added 22 drill sergeants, compared to 1996. From a commanders perspective, it means theres more eyes on our soldiers in the AIT [Advanced Individual Training] environment, he says.

In addition, there now are three equal opportunity advisers, one reporting directly to Hills; in 1996, there was one. And the number of chaplains, who provide soldiers with another option for handling complaints, has been increased from one in 1996 to three.

Training

When trainees hit the base at Aberdeen, drill sergeants put them through four hours of prevention of sexual harassment (POSH) and equal employment opportunity (EEO) training. The sergeants lead discussions about values, show a video with various scenarios and cover a uniform curriculum.

There are goals they have to meet, says Sgt. 1st Class Rodney Yelder, equal opportunity adviser, 61st Ordnance Brigade. The instructor decides whether theyve got it or not. We find that works better than giving them a test.

After POSH training, soldiers spend an additional 30 minutes with Yelder, who speaks about discrimination. I discuss the big fivegender, race, color, religion and national origin. Then Sgt. 1st Class Antanette Copeland, Inspector Generals Office, U.S. Army Ordnance Center and Schools, follows up with another 30 minutes describing the grievance procedures available to soldiers.

At each POSH training session, soldiers are encouraged to take their complaints through the chain of command and to resolve problems at the lowest level. Theyre told they can complain formally or informally. Theyre also told they can go outside the chain of command and discuss their problems with the equal opportunity adviser, the inspector generals representative or the chaplain.

Most informal complaints are handled at the company level by the equal opportunity adviser, Yelder says. If the EOA decides to take the matter further, the complaint can be elevated. But most issues are resolved early on.

Were the eyes and ears of the commanders, says Sgt. 1st Class Ismael Martinez, equal opportunity adviser. We talk to the soldiers, eat lunch with them; they know were available. As a result, we catch problems on time and clear them up.

Ear to the Ground

Even though soldiers have many avenues for making grievances known, leaders dont wait for complaints. They proactively seek potential problems in a variety of ways. For example, midway through training, company commanders in both the 16th Ordnance Battalion and 143rd Battalion conduct mid-course sensing sessions where soldiers gather in a group to discuss their treatment.

Initially they may be reluctant to speak out, so you have to look carefully for body language, says Maj. Donna Webley, executive officer, 143rd Battalion. Sometimes you have to engage them to get the information.

In addition, Hills conducts his own sensing sessions with a representative sampling of soldiers from each of the two battalions that report to him.

The findings from the sensing sessionswhatever they may beare plugged in to the appropriate level of the chain of command. You might find that one or two soldiers have complained about a drill sergeant for some reason, says Command Sgt. Maj. David Bashford. If you determine it should be looked at further, you take necessary action, maybe verbal or written counseling to alter the behavior.

At the conclusion of training, soldiers prepare formal assessments of their experiences, answering questions about gender relationships and sexual harassment. In addition, soldiers must writeanonymously, if they prefera Letter to the Colonel that describes their training experiences.

Are they reluctant to bring up issues of concern? Believe me, theyre not bashful, Hills says.

New-age Drill Sergeants

Perhaps the most visible change at Aberdeen is in drill sergeants. At the time of the investigation, drill sergeants were poorly trainednot able to deal with the diversity in the trainees and the lack of discipline they were finding in them, says retired Brig. Gen. Evelyn Pat Foote, who headed up a task force that investigated gender issues in the Army.

In 1996, I saw how drill sergeants interacted with soldiers, says Copeland. I see a big difference now in their professionalism. Theyre at a higher level.

Psychological screening has helped. Were doing more thorough background checks, says Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Cathcart, of Aberdeens 61st Ordnance Brigade. He adds that self-monitoring has played a role as well. The drill sergeants police each other; they report things that are out of line, which didnt happen before. Back then wed try to cover things up and hope they didnt escalate.

Trainers who are better prepared also are having a positive impact. Now that leaders are explaining harassment and gender issues better, there are fewer problems, Yelder says.

Battle Buddies

But not all of the changes made at Aberdeen are drawing universal acclaim. Example: During training, soldiers are required to have a battle buddy of the same sex, or two buddies of the opposite sex, with them at all times.

The increased use of the buddy system is derived from what happened in the past, says Command Sgt. Maj. Sammy Brimson, 143rd Ordnance Battalion, a former drill sergeant.

Soldiers seem to accept the policy. Weve heard of issues in the past, says Pfc. Latosha Brand, 143rd Battalion. Thats why they push the battle buddy policy. If I report a problem, the first thing theyll ask me is if my buddy was with me.

It protects us and them, adds Pfc. Ronald Akins, Company C, 16th Ordnance Battalion.

But for the 9 percent of female trainees, finding and keeping a same-gender buddy can be a problem. And convincing two men to accompany them at times can be a struggle.

Some observers believe a rigid buddy system that separates soldiers by gender creates artificial barriers that hinder development of trainees.

I am not an advocate of a system where everything you have to do requires a buddy, Foote says. You either trust your soldiers and your drill sergeants or officers, or you better start getting rid of them. My feeling is that type of mentality is not healthy for gender relations. You dont do it in the private sector or in colleges.

Housing: A Mixed Message?

The Safe and Secure policy, like the buddy policy, is designed to limit opportunities for abuse. In the barracks, female soldiers are housed on the first floor, males on the others. Windows and doors are locked and alarms turned on during off-duty hours, from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily. The only way in and out is through the main entrance, which is staffed by a soldier who controls access.

There seems to be consensus at Aberdeen that Safe and Secure is in everyones best interest, but some disagree.

What does it say about mutual trust? asks Foote. If we dont treat these people as adults, when do we expect them to become adults? Aberdeen is so snake-bit about what happened to it that someday people will look at the steps theyre taking and say, Maybe we overreacted.

In the corporate sector, if women and men werent treated as adults, businesses wouldnt be able to survive, says Barbara Adolf, president of Barbara Adolf Consulting in New York.

If youre locking down men and women, it means you think one individual is not capable of meeting with another, says Christine Hanson, executive director of the Miles Foundation in Newtown, Conn., a research and advocacy organization for women in the military. Theyre only protecting themselves and the male soldiers by locking them up. Theyre not protecting the women. When the military says we take care of our own, it means males.

Robert J. Grossman, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

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