Air Force grapples with harassment claims outside spotlight on Navy, Army

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The news reports continue to show that military women are struggling for acceptance in a macho preserve.

Sixteen enlisted women at a Navy training facility in San Diego charge their instructors with sexual comments, harassment and assault. Three West Point cadets are punished for touching the breasts of female cadets at an Army pep rally.

The Air Force has escaped the recent run of headlines. But statistics and interviews with Air Force officers and women's rights advocates show that the newest of the services is faced with a stubborn sexual harassment problem.

"The Air Force is worse. Almost all our complaints are coming from the Air Force, with the Navy running second and the Army a distant third," said Susan Barnes, the director of a Denver-based group called WANDAS Watch, which receives 50 to 60 calls a month. The coalition of about 200 military officers and civilian professionals, stands for Women Active in our Nation's Defense, their Advocates and their Supporters.

Sexual harassment complaints compiled by the services also show that during the past year, the Air Force had a higher number of complaints and a greater percentage substantiated than the Army. Since the Navy has different reporting requirements, it is difficult to compare its rate with those of the other services.

"I was always proud the Air Force gave me a break. It's almost like we've fallen back," said Air Force Lt. Col. Pamela Casarotto, an officer with 21 years in the service. "I'm very concerned about our leadership."

She filed a sexual discrimination complaint against a supervisor at Dover (Del.) Air Force Base, saying that she was relieved of command without an explanation.

"The Air Force has shown me it cannot police itself. The system protects the perpetrators," said Air Force Maj. Ola Allen, another officer at Dover who sent her sexual harassment complaint to Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall, claiming that her superiors covered up and mishandled her charges.

The women all point to the comments of Gen. Merrill McPeak, who retired as Air Force chief of staff last month. He rarely hid his opposition to women's assuming a greater role in the service, they said. Three years ago he told a Senate panel that he would rather fly with a less-qualified male pilot than with a top-notch woman aviator.

"Everybody took that to mean he discriminated against women," said Colonel Casarotto.

D. Michael Collins, the Air Force's deputy assistant secretary for equal opportunity, said that he was unfamiliar with the complaints filed with WANDAS Watch. But the Air Force has seen an increase in formal complaints, which Mr. Collins attributed to the interest generated by the Navy's Tailhook scandal and the Air Force's efforts to deal with harassment.

"If you're educating folks, they're more prone to exercise their rights," said Mr. Collins.

He acknowledged that General McPeak's comments created a "widespread perception" that he didn't support women. "But I think the folks who work it at the grass-roots level didn't back off. I think overall we've tackled the issue."

'A change in the culture'

"There has to be a change in the culture," added Mr. Collins, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. "We're getting new leadership, younger people."

Indeed, a 1992 report in response to Tailhook by former Reps. Les Aspin of Wisconsin and Beverly Byron of Maryland said that "leadership commitment" is the first step in trying to eliminate sexual harassment.

Air Force women are hopeful that Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, the new Air Force chief of staff, will provide a better climate. And their Navy sisters are encouraged by the efforts of Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, named this summer as chief of naval operations, to address sexual harassment and open more assignments to women.

Still, some retired military women say that all the services are battling the same problem and that it's difficult to single out one as the worst.

"[The military services] are at the beginning of the learning curve. You don't change this overnight," said Georgia Sadler, a retired Navy captain and director of the Women in the Military Project at the nonprofit Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington.

Recently the Army has been widely praised as the service leader in dealing with sexual harassment. This year, Congress ordered the Navy and the Air Force to match the Army's sexual harassment rules, which provide strict time-lines for investigating incidents, offer follow-up procedures and allow the complaint to be handled outside the direct command.

A Defense Department task force is developing enforcement and training guidelines and is expected to report its findings next month.

"Only the Army has studied the problem and taken broad action," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., during a hearing earlier this year. "The regulations issued by the Air Force and the Navy have no real protection against reprisals."

The Army has updated its sexual harassment training to include small-group discussions with both sexes, which officials see as more beneficial than pamphlets or lectures, said Lt. Col. Kevin M. Clement, who helped devise the plan.

Others praised the Army for quickly handling the pep rally incident at West Point. Now Navy and Air Force women are waiting for the same effort from their services.

While Navy women praise Admiral Boorda for raising the issues of sexual harassment, they say that the Navy still has to come up with more timely resolution of complaints as well as better training.

Classifications

A Navy pamphlet on sexual harassment classifies behavior through "green," "yellow" and "red" lights, a range from "acceptable" to "inappropriate by most people" to "unacceptable."

One Pentagon official said that the classification scheme overly simplifies a complex situation. And Roxanne Baxter, a retired Navy lieutenant commander who said that her breast was grabbed at the Tailhook convention, notes that the "green" guideline says that it's acceptable to touch in a nonthreatening or nonsexual way.

It fails to address repeated contact, she said. "Unwanted touching is a problem."

But a Navy official defended the service's training to prevent sexual harassment, arguing that it was successful in the San Diego incident. It was a male senior chief petty officer who reported the alleged sexual harassment to officials after a casual conversation with one of the women involved. "That means our leaders are enforcing the policy," he said. "The policy is becoming internalized."

At the same time, Air Force women say that their service's sexual harassment training has been spotty or nonexistent.

"We don't do that anymore," said Colonel Casarotto, who has a complaint of sexual discrimination at Dover Air Force Base. "We have policy letters. They don't really aggressively pursue it."

Mr. Collins, the Air Force's deputy assistant secretary, said the service will strengthen its sexual harassment training early next year. The current one-time training of two hours will increase to six hours and will be repeated after each new assignment. Officers and noncommissioned officers also will receive additional training, he said.

The Defense Department task force, however, could call for even more training, he said.

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