WASHINGTON — BY early next month, all 430,000 members of the US Navy will have participated in a one-day "standdown" to reflect on ways to bolster "good order and discipline."
Adm. Jeremy Boorda, chief of naval operations, ordered the measure after allegations that a drunken Navy cook sexually assaulted a female sailor while 20 sailors and officers stood by.
Officials insist the Navy has made huge strides in reducing such incidents. But others see the standdown as emblematic of a problem that remains widespread four years after the Tailhook sexual-harassment scandal sent shock waves through the military and resulted in the resignation of then-Navy Secretary Lawrence Garrett.
The scandal, in which naval aviators groped dozens of female colleagues at a Las Vegas convention, prompted the Navy to intensify educational measures and to hold commanders responsible for eliminating harassment. But there were no courts-martial for Tailhook, a key reason why the problem persists, experts say.
"Sexual harassment is still a problem in the military and is most severe in the Navy," says Prof. David Segal, co-director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.
Before the alleged assault last month by the Navy cook, the Navy was already trying to contain damage from the alleged rape of a 12-year-old Japanese girl by an American sailor and two Marines on Okinawa. In the latest fallout from that incident, Adm. Richard Macke, the chief of the Pacific Command, was forced last Friday to take early retirement after complaining to reporters that the three suspects could have hired a prostitute for the price of the rental car used in the abduction of the Japanese girl. His retirement indicated in part the Navy's extreme sensitivity to the question of sexual misconduct.
The Navy was also embarrassed by allegations of sexual harassment against two senior officers earlier this year. Capt. Everett Greene, who became the service's chief equal-opportunity officer after Tailhook, was acquitted last month in a court-martial but his promotion to admiral was canceled. A captain who worked at the White House was also denied promotion for making sexually inappropriate comments.
"I want to know how [the Navy] can say things have gotten better," says Cynthia Enloe, professor of government at Clark University and the author of "The Morning After: Sexual Politics and the End of the Cold War." "My sense is that not many Navy women will believe it. Nor should they."
Transforming a culture
While they applaud the post-Tailhook anti-harassment efforts by the Navy and the other services, experts say such measures as the Navy standdown will have little impact. What's needed is the transformation of one of the most enduring of male-dominated cultures.
"Everybody has advanced their training on equal-employment opportunities and training on sexual harassment. But the problem still exists," says Susan Tempero, head of the Pentagon's Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service (DACWS). "There is a need for leadership and for more opportunities for men and women just to discuss working together."
Ms. Tempero praises Admiral Boorda for the standdown, but adds, "I'm not sure that he went far enough in indicating that women are full partners and should be recognized as such."
In his message on the standdown to commanders, Boorda blamed a small minority of personnel for disciplinary infractions and cites alcohol and drugs as major factors. But he made no reference to the problem of sexual harassment. Instead, he likened the standdown to suspensions in operations sometimes called to review safety problems.
" All of us must be involved in the solutions to the problems that face us," Boorda's message stated. "The best way to do this is to do precisely what we do when we have safety standdowns. We don't blame people during safety standdowns."
Navy officials concede that sexual harassment and discrimination persist. But they insist the problem is being curbed through improved education and accountability standards instituted after Tailhook.
Indeed, the latest Pentagon data show a drop in sexual harassment complaints for all the services - from 1,599 to 1,265 - between 1993 and 1994. Just over half the complaints were substantiated.
In contrast, a poll released last week by the US Merit Systems Protection Board of 8,000 federal workers found that Navy women registered the second-highest number of sexual-harassment complaints. A recent study of 333 women veterans treated at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center found that 90 percent experienced sexual harassment during their careers and 25 percent were raped.
But some experts say a new chill has developed in dealing with charges of sexual harassment. Resentment among male officers over the negative fallout from Tailhook has become so high, they say, that women risk having their careers wrecked for filing sexual-harassment complaints.
"Tailhook ... gave women in the services additional courage ... to make complaints. The downside is that women have seen after Tailhook that complaining is more dangerous," says Cathy Gilbert, co-chair of the Military Law Project in San Diego. "Women whose cases have become public have often suffered poor performance evaluations, sometimes disciplinary actions for fluffy or nonexistent reasons and sometimes increased harassment."
Mrs. Gilbert contends that there has been an increase in more subtle forms of harassment, such as denial to female officers of the same level of respect given their male colleagues.
The executive director of DACWS, Caroline Prevatte, says it will take a long time to transform the military's attitudes.
"I think that the top leadership has put the appropriate policies into place and I have no reason to doubt their commitment," says Ms. Prevatte, who recently retired as a Navy captain. "It takes a while for that commitment to filter down to every level."