COLUMBIA - Despite a series of sexual harassment charges in the Army, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen on Friday praised Fort Jackson's coed basic training, saying there is no reason to discontinue the practice.
Mr. Cohen, who ran with the male and female recruits in the morning, said there have been concerns in about the program in Congress since several drill sergeants were charged with rape and harassment of young trainees at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.
"(But) from what I witnessed today, it seems to be working quite well," Mr. Cohen said.
Army officials say they need the program and "in order to overrule that particular judgment, I'd have to have some pretty compelling evidence that it's not working and needs to be changed," Mr. Cohen said.
The recruits at Fort Jackson seem to like the program, said Mr. Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine. "Separate or segregated training is not something they think will be beneficial to them," he said.
This was Mr. Cohen's first visit to Fort Jackson, the Army's largest training base, as defense secretary. The base started coed training back in 1994 along with Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
The Army attempted to integrate male and female basic trainees in the late 1970s, but abandoned the practice after disappointing results.
An Associated Press poll released Friday showed 53 percent of Americans support the joint training to 39 percent for separate training.
The poll also showed 55 percent of Americans say sexual harassment is ingrained in the military. The number who think the armed forces could root out sexual harassment, 42 percent, shows less confidence than for doing away with sexual assault, 53 percent, or hazing, 50 percent.
The poll of 1,010 adults was taken by phone Feb. 21-25 by ICR of Media, Pa. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3 percentage points.
Cohen said the poll could reflect the bad publicity the Army has received with the sexual harassment charges. However, the poll also showed that the military still has a pretty good reputation, and current efforts to battle harassment will help further, he said.
Army officials "are trying to get out in front of this issue," he said. "They are dealing with it, I think, in a very proactive fashion and I believe you'll see it turning around in the polls."
Cohen said there are still several questions that need to be answered before the Army can solve its gender relations problems.
"We need to find out how deeply ingrained, if it is deeply ingrained; we need to find out whether or not it is confined to specific installations or facilities or whether it's more endemic," Cohen said. "I don't think we know the answers to that yet."
Cohen said President Clinton would have his report on Fort Jackson by Friday night or Saturday morning.