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Armed Forces Training Is Too Soft, Panel Finds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A high-level Pentagon advisory panel found Tuesday that boot camps once fabled for their toughness have become far too lax, and it urged the armed forces to tighten discipline, increase fitness training and eliminate performance standards that are easier for women than men.

After a five-month study of the military’s much-maligned training system, a committee headed by former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker (R-Kan.) also called for sweeping changes in recruitment. Most recruits “told the committee their recruiters lied to them” in their eagerness to fill quotas, the panel reported.

Strong resistance already has surfaced to another of the committee’s key recommendations--that men and women be segregated for a portion of their basic training. That proposal, which leaked Monday, was denounced by some female lawmakers and women’s groups as a step backward, even as some conservatives in Congress praised it.

The 11-member committee, which includes five retired military leaders, was appointed by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen last June amid controversy over the military’s training system--a furor spotlighted by the sexual misconduct of drill sergeants at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

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The committee’s report is one of three major studies that have attempted to plumb the source of gender conflicts between trainees, and another is underway.

Cohen said he views the report as part of a “process” and insisted he was “neutral and open . . . to all constructive recommendations.”

President Clinton said he, too, would review the recommendations but would not endorse any proposal that set back women’s efforts to advance in the military.

The report comes out strongly on the side of critics who have argued that the armed forces have gone too far in softening their training. These critics maintain that the services have eased up on discipline and physical challenges as they have sought to lure young people who are not used to much of either.

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After 2,000 interviews at 17 bases, the panel came to much the same conclusions.

The troops “almost all said that basic training was easier than expected, that discipline should be more strongly emphasized and enforced, and that the requirements and standards should be made more consistent across training units within a service,” the report says.

And it declared that morale has been sapped by a two-tiered system of performance standards that allows women to do far less than men.

In obstacle courses, for example, women are required to scale shorter walls, and can use knotted rather than unknotted ropes, or even walk around the obstacle if they choose. Women are required to throw a grenade 25 yards, versus 35 yards for a man.

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“While some of these standards are also applicable to smaller males, they are fueling the perception that women are less capable,” the report says. It urged the services to remove “as many differences as possible.”

The committee found that some drill instructors have treated women more leniently in disciplinary situations for fear they might be accused of sexual harassment. This, too, sapped morale, the committee said, and it called on the military leadership to make sure rules were evenly enforced.

In calling for tougher physical fitness standards, the panel said the current system has engendered “widespread cynicism” and a “widespread belief among both males and females that the physical requirements for females are too low.”

The committee said many young people complained that recruiters promised them desirable assignments they couldn’t get, and in other cases were uninformed about career options in the military.

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The report points out that recruiters, and the armed services’ recruitment advertising, now stress the college tuition aid and advanced training that young people can receive by enlisting, while playing down the idea of joining out of any patriotic motive.

Although it may draw in recruits, this approach makes it tougher to discipline enlistees because “by definition, many recruits have joined these services just to get out and get back to school,” the report says.

To improve discipline and help forge the “cohesion” that is considered key to military training, the committee recommended that basic-training units be segregated by gender.

These units--called platoons in the Army, divisions in the Navy and flights in the Air Force--are now divided by men and women only at night, and are housed in different wings or floors of the same building. The committee said that this arrangement takes a toll on unit cohesion. And their supervisors face the disciplinary problem of trying to keep the sexes separated when they are in the barracks.

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The committee said that if the genders were segregated at the unit level, men and women would be able to “focus” better on their work in the initial few weeks of boot camp. Under this proposal, they would still be trained together in field and classroom settings, which accounts for about 70% of their training time, members said.

But some critics worried that it could open the door to a further division of men and women.

The report “represents a disturbing step backward for the military,” said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Torrance), a member of the personnel subcommittee of the House National Security Committee, said problems related to gender-integrated training should be solved not by segregation, but by “more leadership, more resources and better recruiting.”

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“Separate is inherently unequal,” she said.

But Rep. Stephen E. Buyer (R-Ind.), chairman of the National Security military personnel subcommittee, praised the report, saying Kassebaum Baker “did not permit distractions or political issues” to color the panel’s evaluation of how to give military personnel the best training possible.


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