NEW YORK — BASED on his religious beliefs, Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth Carkhuff doubted the suitability of women serving in combat. Those views, expressed privately to his superior officer, nearly cost him his career in the Navy. Now he is trying to expunge his military record of an incident that illustrates the challenges the Navy faces in opening its ranks to women.
Secretary of the Navy John Dalton last week overturned two separate Navy review boards' rulings discharging Commander Carkhuff, a helicopter pilot whose superiors, only weeks before his dismissal, predicted he would be ''destined for command and beyond.''
In discharging Carkhuff earlier this year, the Navy said the officer's request revealed a ''glaring irreconcilable conflict with Navy policy.''
''Overnight, an officer with impeccable credentials was tossed aside,'' says Stephen Gallagher, a retired Navy captain and former Navy judge. ''The message the Navy was sending was clear. If a serviceman's beliefs aren't politically correct - no matter what those beliefs are based upon - he dare not express them. If he does, he risks his career coming to an unexpected end. We're glad the Navy understood the implications of its original action.''
Carkhuff will now try to have all mention of the incident erased from his records. If not, his career could suffer, military experts say. Navy spokesmen say Carkhuff's future assignments will ''depend on several factors, many of which have yet to be fully worked out.'' His court case will not be held against him.
The Carkhuff case has refocused attention on the degree to which the military should involve itself in the private lives of its officers.
The controversy also comes as Republicans are pushing for a constitutional amendment, the Religious Equality Amendment, protecting religious freedoms they say are being denied. Carkhuff's reinstatement may rob the amendment's supporters of a cause celebre.
Carkhuff's troubles began with an August 1994 conversation with his commanding officer. Based on his evangelical Christian beliefs, he was morally opposed to the Navy's policy of women in combat. His disclosure came as he was scheduled to lead a detachment of helicopter pilots - including two women - on drug interdiction operations near the coast of Haiti.
Hoping his remarks would excuse him from the mission, but swearing under oath in court that he would have participated if commanded, the officer soon found himself removed from both his detachment and squadron.
Carkhuff's fitness record - which had previously described his ''unlimited potential'' - was downgraded to detail his ''substandard performance,'' specifically his ''failure to demonstrate acceptable qualities of leadership required of an officer.'' Shortly thereafter he was asked to submit a letter of resignation.
Carkhuff was questioned about his membership in a religious group, Promise Keepers. Steve Chavis, a spokesman for the group, says Promise Keepers is geared ''to help men discover how to deepen their devotion to God, and in turn, to their families through consistent worship, prayer, and obedience,'' and has never taken a stand on the issue of women in combat.
Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Joe Quimby says ''No one should think for a second'' that the Navy has altered its ''commitment to integrating women in combat roles.'' The Navy ''continues to be committed to a combatant service for all personnel in the Navy, in accordance with the law and policies of naval service.''