Case Shows Complexity of Sexual Harassment Disputes

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Picture this: The Navy's top admiral, on a meet-the-sailors base visit, goes out of his way to offer a Pentagon job to a junior lieutenant who has failed flight training and faces discharge.

Why? Because Lt. Rebecca Hansen, 28, had been sexually harassed in 1992 and was blaming her expulsion from helicopter pilot school a year later on retaliation for her sexual-harassment complaint.


After Lieutenant Hansen refused all offers -- including the admiral's -- of a nonflying career in the Navy, the service began discharge proceedings against her last month, the normal fate of failed pilots in these days of military cutbacks.

But not every sexually harassed officer is offered a job personally by the chief of naval operations. Nor do such officers usually get to see the secretary of the Navy, the assistant secretary of the Navy and the vice chief of naval operations to make their $H demands.


That Lieutenant Hansen did all that is a reflection of her own persistence, the advice of a Navy lawyer, the political clout of her local senator and the Navy's post-Tailhook sensitivity to sexual harassment cases.

That she ultimately failed to get what she wanted -- a second chance to earn her wings -- is a measure of the Navy's determination not to compromise its performance standards, whatever the pressure, Navy officials say.

In this case, political correctness bumped into military priority.

The prospect is that sexual harassment cases could get even more complicated. Rep. Ron Dellums, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has introduced legislation outlawing reprisals against any member of the services who makes a formal complaint about what he or she "reasonably believes" to be harassment or discrimination.

Lieutenant Hansen's experience raises the question of how far the image-bruised Navy needs to go in handling allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation.

"I see it as evidence of the Navy overcompensating for mistakes made during the Tailhook investigation," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness.

Mrs. Donnelly, who served on the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, added: "Going in to high Navy officials and attempting to blackmail them -- any man who did that would not last very long at all.

"Whether it's done in the name of equality or not, unequal treatment is unequal. That creates resentment, turbulence, and is contrary to good order in the military and absolutely not justified, not for the sake of women or any other special group."


The Navy's explanation for the way Lieutenant Hansen was treated is that the leadership wanted her to know directly that they regretted the harassment, and that the decision to end her flying career was justified.

"It's case by case," said Cmdr. Steve Pietropaoli, director of Naval information in the Pentagon. "You really don't want to leave any individual with a sense they were somehow let down by the system."

Lieutenant Hansen was sexually harassed by an instructor at the Navy's helicopter training school in Corpus Christi, Texas, in March 1992, eight months into her training. She formally complained about the incident in June 1992, at the end of her primary training course.

The instructor was issued a letter of reprimand on July 21, 1992. Ten days later, he was heard in the officers' club saying that other instructors would retaliate against Lieutenant Hansen for him.

Navy records show that Lieutenant Hansen was regarded as a marginal student almost from the beginning of her flight training in August of 1991, barely making passing grades or demonstrating required flying skills. Of 1,151 graduates of the primary flight training course, she finished 1,094th.

In June 1992, a review board was convened to judge whether she would be allowed to continue pilot training. Although doubting her ability to complete the course, the board decided to let her continue "due to the mitigating circumstances of her sexual-harassment experience and her extreme motivation," according to a Navy inspector general's report of the case.


In November 1992, she was transferred to Whiting Field, Fla. for advanced training. Her new instructors gave her a "marginally unsatisfactory" rating, and in March 1993, she faced another performance review board. Before appearing, she was asked in a written question: "Have you any complaint or criticism to make concerning your treatment or training, and/or do you have any extenuating personal problem that should be brought to the attention of the board?" Her response: "No."

The board decided that her training should be terminated. Two days later, she complained to her squadron commander that she had been a victim of retaliation for her sexual harassment complaint.

The Navy inspector general could find no evidence of retaliation. That finding was endorsed by the Defense Department's inspector general and by Adm. Stanley Arthur, the vice chief of naval operations and the service's senior aviator.

"They seem to find what they want to come out," Lieutenant Hansen said. "The inspector general system has proved it is incapable of handling this kind of complaint. They are making every effort to tear me apart because I am a complainant."

While the Navy offered her other opportunities, she insisted on re-entering flight school. She said in an interview last week: "I can't compromise, nor would I want to. I have been badgered for over a year now with 'What else do you want?' When I keep reiterating what my desire is -- to have a fair environment to compete for grades -- they answer that that is not good enough."

Of the Pentagon job offer from Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, the chief of naval operations, she said: "He was wanting to do the right thing. I am just very disappointed that there is so much effort to get around the problem rather than deal with it head on."


L To many, the outcome raises as many questions as it answers.

"What we don't know is the extent to which the whole process was tainted by the harassment," said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center and an authority on sexual harassment in the military.

"The general principle is that, if you are harassed, you should be made whole. If part of what happened is you weren't able to do your job because of this . . . you, in general, have a right to go back to be made whole.

"Obviously, you don't want someone flying a plane who can't do it. One way would be to let her start over and the second time if she doesn't do it well enough, she's out."

Admiral Arthur, who made the decision to end her career as a pilot and informed her of it, decided not only that she had not shown the necessary aptitude, but also that, if he sent her back, her instructors might read it as a signal that she should be graduated automatically.

In a letter to her home-state senator Dave Durenberger, a Minnesota Republican, Admiral Arthur wrote, "I do not desire to see her or perhaps others die because she could not perform at a level consistent with our standards."


For the Navy, the case touches a painful nerve. Since female officers and guests were assaulted at the 1991 Tailhook convention in Las Vegas, the Navy has been trying to improve its image, moving promptly on sexual harassment cases and opening more opportunities for women. The high-level treatment and extensive review of Lieutenant Hansen's case -- whatever its rights or wrongs -- reflect that approach.

Commander Pietropaoli, the Navy information director, said: "Certainly we understand far better from Tailhook that the devil is in the details in these cases of harassment. We are learning lessons daily in this very, very complex social area. We are far more sensitive, and, I think, effective in dealing with this."

Leslie R. Wolfe, director of the Center for Women's Policy Studies, said: "They are more sensitive now. But there are always cases where you can't figure out what is the right thing to do, and maybe that's what they are beginning to learn.

"It sounds like they have tried, and she has tried, and I assume that she feels that one more chance and she would make it as a pilot. It's kind of a messy case. It would be rather nice to have a service in which men and women could be equal partners. That's what we are moving toward. I am not sure I will live long enough, but it's worth struggling for."