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Pentagon Toughens Army Fraternization Rules

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Pentagon on Wednesday issued new rules on personal relationships that will outlaw many Army romances and end some friendships, while upholding controversial sanctions against adultery throughout the services.

After 13 months of contentious deliberations, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered the Army to adopt the tougher line of the other services on “fraternization"--improper relationships between officers and enlisted personnel. At the same time, in the face of vehement public protests by the traditionalist Marine Corps and others, Cohen rejected an internal proposal that would have reduced the maximum penalty for adultery.

The decisions mean that traditionalists have won the latest phase of a continuing debate over how much the post-Cold War military needs to fall in line with rules of conduct that prevail in the civilian world. The argument heated up in early 1997, with the controversy over the Air Force’s plans to court-martial 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn, the B-52 pilot who was accused of adultery, lying and disobeying orders and who resigned to avoid a trial.

The ruling could displease people like Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott and feminist Gloria Steinem, who--during the Flinn controversy--argued that the military was badly out of step and needed to ease its punishments on adultery.

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“This is a big win for the Marines and people of like mind,” said one senior officer.

The tougher rules on fraternization will put in jeopardy the relationships of thousands of active-duty and reserve personnel in the Army, which long has operated on more egalitarian rules than the Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.

Unlike those of the other services, Army rules have provided for two decades that officers and enlisted personnel can date, belong to the same clubs and do business together, so long as they are not in the same units or chain of command.

Rules against fraternization are based on centuries-old military tradition and are aimed at preventing the erosion of military morale and cohesion by perceptions that some soldiers are receiving preferential treatment. Such perceptions are thought to be a particular threat in combat situations, where orders that could mean death must be obeyed.

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The new rules will confront many soldiers with the choice of breaking off romances or other relationships, dropping out of the military or carrying on relationships in violation of the guidelines.

Many in the Army leadership argued that the current system works well. “The Army hasn’t had a problem,” said Sara E. Lister, the Army’s personnel chief during most of the Clinton administration, until she resigned earlier this year. “The soldiers aren’t going to like this.”

But top Pentagon officials said they believe that--with the services called on to take part in more and more combined operations, especially overseas--the varying rules will give rise to ever more conflicts.

“We have moved into a joint environment and there was confusion,” Rudy F. de Leon, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, said at a press conference.

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Observers said that the new rules will hit a deeply ingrained tradition for the Army, which has 480,000 active-duty and 500,000 reserve personnel.

Army officers and enlisted personnel who now meet at joint clubs will be barred from doing so. On overseas posts in places such as Germany, post commanders and their most senior enlisted personnel live near each other and traditionally have met regularly on social occasions.

The rules could hit especially hard at many reservists. In some instances, people who work for the same employer and belong to the same social clubs during the week serve in the same reserve unit on the weekend. Under the new rules, these personnel would be barred from having social relationships.

Secretary Cohen’s order will give the Army 30 days to develop plans to carry out the new rules.

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But some Army officers predicted that will be a difficult task, involving thorny questions of whether to “grandfather” in some existing relationships. The Army has about 2,000 married couples--including those on active duty and in the reserve--in which one spouse is an officer and the other is in the enlisted ranks. Their status will not be affected by the rules, officers said.

Some officers predicted widespread resistance to the new rules among the troops.

The military seemed ready recently to overhaul its rules on adultery. But earlier this month, the Marines, in a highly unusual move, went public with declarations that they would oppose even slight revisions that sent the message that adultery was no longer taken as seriously as it is now. Senior leaders in other services likewise expressed doubts.

Protests were registered on Capitol Hill, including by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who asked on the Senate floor if the Marines “will be asked to change their motto from ‘always faithful’ to ‘usually faithful,’ or ‘sometimes faithful.’ ”

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And it was clear that an easing of adultery sanctions could have created political problems for President Clinton at a time when he is dealing with allegations that he had carried on an affair with a White House intern.

In the end, the Pentagon decided to change none of its adultery rules, offering only additional clarifying language for military commanders on how allegations of adultery in various circumstances should be handled.

De Leon, the Pentagon personnel boss, said that he could not predict whether the clarifications would affect how many adultery allegations would be sent to court-martial and how many would be handled with lesser, administrative sanctions.

The Marines are “in complete support” of the new directive, a spokesman said.

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