WASHINGTON -- On the 50th anniversary of all-female military units being integrated into the regular armed forces, the Senate may be about to end the practice of housing men and women together for basic training.
The Senate version of a segregated housing proposal that has already passed the House could come up for a vote as early as Friday -- the date President Harry S. Truman signed a measure that gave women a permanent role in the active military and reserves.
Approval of the legislation would force Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to retreat from his stand this week to keep men and women in the same barracks, though in separate areas, during the first weeks of military life.
Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, sponsoring the barracks measure, calls it "a sensible step" to restoring "privacy and dignity" to military basic training.
Brownback said a staffer returned from an Army training base with stories of sex between recruits and makeshift separations between the sleeping areas of men and women.
"You're setting up an environment where you're going to ask for problems," said the senator, noting a Cohen-appointed commission backed separate barracks last year after it found "improper sexual relations" take place in integrated barracks. "It's a common-sense argument."
A recent sex scandal involving instructors and recruits at the Navy's boot camp, the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, has increased calls for separate barracks, leading some congressional aides to predict that the Brownback measure will pass, though it was not endorsed by the Armed Services Committee.
But Cohen, his service chiefs, some lawmakers and retired women officers are resisting the move to separate barracks, citing the expense and fearing it would impede unit cohesion.
"If Congress is going to mandate separate barracks, then I hope that they will also appropriate the dollars to fund it," Cohen said this week, estimating it would cost $168 million to construct separate facilities.
"Billeting the soldiers by gender in separate buildings will degrade the commander's ability to command and control his or her unit," said Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army chief of staff, in a letter to congressional leaders. And Air Force Gen. Michael E. Ryan, the Air Force's top officer, said in a separate letter that such gender separation is "counterproductive" to the "train-as-we-operate" philosophy.
The Senate debate comes against a backdrop of the golden anniversary of gender integration. On June 12, 1948, Truman signed a measure that gave women a permanent role in the military for the first time. During World War I and World War II women served only for the "duration of the emergency" and were discharged when the fighting ended. Except for nurses, there was no place for women in the peacetime military.
On Friday, top defense officials, lawmakers and women officers will gather at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate the act.
"Here we are 50 years later fighting the same battles," said
retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, who calls the congressional measure a "step backwards" for military women. "The signal it sends is women are second-class citizens," said Vaught, who is lobbying senators to oppose the barracks measure. "I think it's important we train together, because we're going to fight together."
"The sooner they learn to live and work together the better," added retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeanne M. Holm, author of the 1992 book "Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution." Separate barracks "is a cop-out," she said. "It's an escape from the need to have strong leadership at the local level."
Countered Brownback: "Then let's have them sleep bunk-to-bunk if that's the argument."
And Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Maryland Republican and leading supporter of the House measure, said: "Men and women are different. All we're asking for is a modicum of common sense. I'm very supportive of women in the military."
A Pentagon-appointed commission headed by former Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, which included retired male and female military officers, issued a report in December calling for a return to gender-separate basic training and housing.
Since 1976, the Air Force has housed men and women in integrated barracks during basic training, while the Navy and Army have housed them together since 1992 and 1994, respectively. The Army housed the sexes together for a time during the 1970s. In integrated barracks, men and women are separated by floors, bays or barriers.
The Marines train and house men and women separately during boot camp.
After extensive visits to military bases, the commission found that integrated housing "is contributing to a higher rate of disciplinary problems." Housing men and women in separate barracks would not only curb such problems but "reduce distractions from training."
Despite Cohen's assertions, the committee found a separate barracks policy could be achieved with "marginal costs."
On the heels of the Baker report, however, the Defense Advisory Commission on Women in the Services, known by its acronym DACOWITS, released its own study reporting that gender relations and command climates were better in training installations that had long been integrated.
"The quality of our total force depends not on strictly segregated barracks, but on strict standards for the development and safety of all recruits," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, who praised Cohen for maintaining integrated barracks with increased safeguards.
The Senate Armed Services Committee decided against endorsing any changes for military housing, preferring to wait until still another commission -- this one appointed by Congress -- completes its review of military training and gender issues next March.
Pub Date: 6/10/98