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Senators, DoD Leaders Address Sexual Harassment

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 6, 1997 – Sexual harassment allegations should not serve as an opening wedge for people to say military women are incapable of fulfilling their mission, said Defense Secretary William Cohen.

"Women are indispensable to our military," Cohen said during a Pentagon press briefing Feb. 6. "They now comprise 13.5 percent of our force. They are doing outstanding work. We're not going to see any rollback there."

During congressional hearings two days earlier, several senators called for the military to re-evaluate mixed-gender basic and advanced training. The Army, Navy and Air Force train men and women together, while the Marine Corps maintains separate training.

Cohen said defense officials will consider whether training men and women together creates an environment conducive to sexual harassment. Army leaders appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 4, said in their view mixed-gender training is not the problem.

Mixed training began in the Army more than 20 years ago, said Army Secretary Togo West. "When our women in the armed forces do their jobs, they do them in a gender-integrated atmosphere," he said. "It seems not only foolish but perhaps a waste of the taxpayers' money to train them separately in a way different from the way they will be expected to perform."

Women now make up about 14 percent of the Army, said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer. "They serve with men; why not introduce them at the very start?" he said.

"We would not have as good an Army as we have right now if we didn't have the females in," Reimer said. "We need to attract from the broad base of society and take the best people to be a part of our Army."

Rather than blaming mixed-gender training, the Army leaders said the sexual harassment problem is due to some leaders' failure to uphold the code of conduct and look out for their troops. "Sexual harassment is not a policy issue; it's an issue of right and wrong," Reimer said.

"Sexual harassment and misconduct ... lower morale and destroy teamwork and cohesion," he said. "They erode respect for the chain of command ... and most importantly, they destroy basic human dignity."

Army leaders have a responsibility to care for the men and women in their ranks, Reimer said. "Americans trust us," he said. "They give us their most precious assets, their sons and daughters. ... They ask that we take care of them and that we make sure they are trained properly before we put them in harm's way. To the extent that we do not live up to that trust, we fail the American people."

The Army is responding to the sexual harassment problem with a policy of zero tolerance, Reimer said. "I am convinced the Army will properly handle this critical issue, and we will come out of this situation a much stronger institution."

West and Reimer outlined Army efforts to get to the bottom of the sexual harassment allegations discovered last fall at several training bases. A number of Army drill sergeants and other training cadre at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., and at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., are now facing criminal charges ranging from improper relationships with students to rape and forcible sodomy. Others have been fined or demoted.

The Army inspector general is reviewing policies and practices related to sexual harassment and equal opportunity at all training bases. Army officials also set up a hot line and as of Jan. 30, had received more than 7,000 calls. Of those, about 1,060 complaints were referred to criminal investigators, resulting in 239 ongoing criminal investigations, Army officials said.

Army leaders set up the Senior Review Panel on Sexual Harassment which is now visiting 35 Army installations in the United States and overseas to review the equal opportunity climate. The panel is scheduled to report its findings in May and June, Army officials said. The panel itself has been touched by a new allegation of sexual misconduct.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Gene McKinney, originally named to the panel, excused himself from serving after he became the target of complaints made public Feb. 4. A retired sergeant major alleges McKinney sexually harassed and sexually assaulted her while she was serving as his public affairs advisor. McKinney denies he ever engaged in any form of sexual misconduct or improper treatment with the NCO making the allegations, Army officials said.

West and Reimer were among the military and civilian defense leaders who appeared before the Senate committee Feb. 4. Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Ed Dorn, Navy Secretary John Dalton and Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall testified on the military's continuing campaign to combat sexual harassment. Army Inspector General Lt. Gen. Jared Bates and Brig. Gen. Daniel L. Doherty, commander of the Army Criminal Investigation Command, also testified.

Dorn told the committee that unwanted sexual behavior in the military has declined in recent years according to a 1995 DoD survey. "The good news is that sexual harassment isn't as bad as it used to be. The bad news is that it's still a major challenge for the armed services," he said.

If even one soldier, sailor, airman or Marine feels pressured sexually, the department has a problem, Dorn said. Sexual harassment is an affront to human dignity, it is against the law and it undermines the trust and mutual respect necessary in a military unit, he said.

"We have policies in place which tell people how they should behave. We also have punishments in place for those who do not behave properly," he said.

Tailhook served as the Navy's wake-up call on sexual harassment problems, according to Dalton. In the five years since Tailhook, he said, the Navy and Marine Corps have worked hard to create an environment where people feel free to report mistreatment and are confident complaints will be treated seriously and without reprisal.

"Eliminating unprofessional and unlawful behavior is a continuous process," Dalton told the committee. "It's a task which demands the department's ongoing attention and complete resolve ... We will not waver in our determination to rid our fleet and our corps of all unprofessional behavior and unlawful conduct."

The Air Force is committed to creating an environment free of gender, race or ethnic harassment or discrimination, Widnall said. "Nothing destroys military effectiveness more than division in the ranks," she said. "The success of missions depends on the degree of trust and understanding that exist among the people in our units. Anything that might erode this trust is not tolerable."

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