Aberdeen: Part Two

In 1996-1997, I was the lead prosecutor in the largest investigation and prosecution in the history of the U.S. Army up to that time.  During what came to be known as the Aberdeen Scandal, a dozen or so non-commissioned officers (NCOs) or sergeants and one officer came to be prosecuted.  They were either confined to prison or fired from the Army with unfavorable discharges.

As a result of the largest investigation in Army history, thousands of female trainees were interviewed and hundreds came forward alleging instances of sexual abuse or inappropriate sexual relations with male superiors.  It was later determined that a massive breakdown in the Army’s leadership structure and loss of core Army values had resulted.  After the prosecutions and media feeding frenzy had subsided, the Army was never the same.  Neither was I.

Part Two

At the direction of the Pentagon, Army investigators began interviewing every female trainee that was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground or who had been stationed at APG in prior years.  This amounted to thousands of interviews.  The pattern of criminal misconduct described above emerged.  The number of NCOs accused soared.

Suddenly, we went from a Criminal Justice department of three trial counsel to an shop with 12 prosecutors.  The Army began flying in trial counsel from all over the world to assist in these prosecutions.  They came from Washington D.C. and Washington State, from the South, the Midwest and from Korea.  We had just built a new courthouse.  Luckily, the old courthouse, a relic from the early 1900s, had not been torn down yet.  We needed both venues.

The Commanding General (CG) of the Ordnance School (where these crimes had occurred) held twice-daily crisis sessions with senior leadership in an attempt to stay out in front of what was becoming a growing scandal.  I was called upon to brief the officers at many of these meetings.  The look in their eyes was unmistakable.  They feared for their careers.

In the military, a commander is granted incredible powers.  In turn, he or she is responsible for everything that transpires under his or her command.  Although these leaders had not actually committed bad acts, they were facing scrutiny for allowing such an environment to exist within their command structure.  Many of them were officially reprimanded afterward.  In today’s military, a reprimand is a career-killer.

COL Fred Borch. Photo from Wikipedia.

Apparently, at some point, someone in the Pentagon looked closely at the situation and determined that I as a 31 year-old Captain with only four years’ service was probably not senior enough to lead the prosecutorial team on a justice project of this scale.

Enter Lieutenant Colonel Fred Borch.  He arrived from the Pentagon one afternoon.  In the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG), LTC Borch was already had a great reputation.  He had written several books.  I tried to install LTC Borch in my giant office in the plantation-style building where the JAG offices were located.  He would not have any of it.  He took a desk in a much smaller office.

Instead of taking things over in a heavy-handed manner, Borch told me he was there to assist me.  I was sceptical.  Over time, I learned to trust him.  He became and ally and a mentor to me.  He gave the Pentagon a feeling of security, while allowing me the latitude to proceed as I needed.

Later, Borch was promoted to full Colonel and made Chief Prosecutor of the Guantanamo Military Commissions.  He was subsequently accused of trying to corrupt the commissions.  Fred denied the accusations vehemently and resigned his commission as an Officer.

U.S. Army Ordnance Center & School

Being falsely accused myself, I can sympathize with COL Borch.  For, during the latter part of the Aberdeen scandal, charges were leveled against me for allegedly attempting to improperly influence a witness during a trial by court-martial.  In an act of prudence, my commander suspended me from trying cases pending determination of this allegation.  This decision had little practical effect, as I was already far removed from the courtroom.  My administrative duties in managing the dozens of courts-martial involved were overwhelming.  I found the pressure to be intense.  Adding to my strain was the fact that Running Girl was in the late stages of pregnancy with The Fashionista.  She was born on New Year’s Eve 1996.

A Colonel from another installation investigated the charges against me.  In a written decision, I was cleared of 100% of the allegations.  I could breathe again.

The Aberdeen Scandal drew national media attention.  Without a doubt, this was the most difficult part of the ordeal.  Until this point in my life, I had naively assumed that the media’s overriding interest was to get the story correct.  Everything else would flow from that tenet.

Not so, I learned.  During the Aberdeen Scandal, the press ignored the real story: the breakdown in military values; the loss of trust in the chain-of-command; the enormous abuse of power exercised by a few selfish individuals had caused harm to the good order and discipline of the service.

The media was interested in only three things: sex, sex and sex.  That’s all they wrote and reported about.  Each day, we dispatched teams of public relations officers trained to get our message out to the media.  It fell on deaf ears.  And I’m not talking just about the Geraldos and the Montells and the Mauries.  I became disillusioned with the reporting by The New York Times, ABC Nightline and Time Magazine.  They just didn’t get it.

Time was, everyone had a father, a brother or an uncle who had served in the military.  However, during the Aberdeen Scandal, the media (and American society at-large) was largely unaware of military culture.

To this day, I strongly believe that the media did not do its job well enough in this instance.  Instead of taking the time to properly learn what the story was really about, reporters churned out pieces that were guaranteed to satisfy the public’s prurient interest — in other words, to attract the greatest number of viewers, listeners or readers.

Diane Sawyer and other national media personalities began to land interviews with the female victims.  Most of these women were from small towns and some had very low self-esteem.  All of a sudden, ABC and other large media outlets began sending limousines to pick up and transport these women to the bright lights of Manhattan.  It was hard for them to turn down such offers.  One might say that, in this manner, these women were victimized a second time.

Kweisi Mfume

Then the NAACP stepped in.  I guess it was inevitable.  The organization’s headquarters was located 30 minutes away in Baltimore.  Virtually all of the accused individuals were African-American or Hispanic.  NAACP President Kweisi Mfume became a frequent visitor to APG.  He figuratively wrapped his arms around the accuseds, and pronounced that surely the forces of racism were alive and well in the U.S. Army.

But it wasn’t about racism.  It wasn’t necessarily about the sex.  And it wasn’t solely about the breakdown in good order and discipline.

It was about men committing bad acts against females who were placed in a subordinate position to them by the Army which should have done a better job to protect them.  That’s it.

Coming soon in Part Three:  The Aftermath.

Read Aberdeen: Part One.

— The Major


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