Women Flock to Armed Forces Despite Harassment Scandals

Critics say deep-rooted problems remain, and a fallout is very likely.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Army recruiter Sgt. 1st Class Julie Beck says she's actually put more women into the Army than before the sexual-harassment scandal at the Aberdeen Proving Ground broke last November.

"It's a good time for a female to join the Army because no drill sergeant in their right mind would ... attempt to harass anyone right now," says Sergeant Beck, who spends her days scouring Long Island for potential recruits. "People are getting slam-dunked right and left."

While the armed forces have had trouble with general recruiting in the past few years, women have been lining up to join the ranks. To military officials, the increase in women recruits indicates confidence in their efforts to combat sexual harassment with their zero-tolerance policy and high-profile prosecutions. But critics, who charge the Army has handled the issue clumsily at best, believe deeper problems persist surrounding the sensitive issue of sexuality in the military.

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Both the Army and Air Force report that recruitment of women has increased in the past six months, continuing a decades-long trend that's driving up the number of women in the military. And while the Navy's women recruits are down, officials say that's only because so many women are choosing to stay in the service, which has limited space for women on its ships. "We have many, many more women wanting to come into the Navy than we have billets to fill," says. Lt. Daren Pelkie of the Navy Recruiting Command in Arlington, Va.

But some see a backlash to the harassment problems coming. "If there hasn't been a chilling effect yet, there should be one," says Chris Lombardi, the organizer of Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel (STAMP). The nonprofit group is composed primarily of former military personnel who allege the armed forces either ignored their charges of sexual harassment, intimidation, and assault, or retaliated against them for raising the issue.

Since the scandal at Aberdeen broke in November, the Army has set up a high-level task force to examine the issue of sexual harassment throughout the service. It also established a hot line for victims of sexual assault. So far, more than 540 cases have been referred to the Criminal Investigation Division for possible felony charges.

"Although it seems kind of dark in this tunnel right now, this whole sexual-misconduct and harassment scandal will probably be the catalyst for further improvement," says an Army spokeswoman, Maj. Natalie Perkins. "When things get this kind of attention, there's more emphasis on making things better."

But retired Air Force Capt. Dorothy Mackey is skeptical. She left the Air Force in 1992 after what she describes as repeated harassment and assault by her commanding officer and his assistant, a colonel and a lieutenant colonel. "I went through a year of being groped and grabbed, subjected to inappropriate sexual comments," says Ms. Mackey, now the director of STAMP.

She contends her allegations were played down and dismissed because of her superiors' rank. "The military legal system, which is accountable only to itself, simply can't monitor itself," says Mackey, who is now suing the alleged perpetrators in civil court.

Military officials declined to comment on STAMP's allegations. But in response to the issues raised by Mackey and as many as 50 other STAMP members, Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D) and Louise Slaughter (D) of New York have introduced a House bill that would set up a Civilian Commission on Military Justice and Fairness to investigate charges of injustice in the military court system.

"There must be a full review of recruiting, training, and disciplinary procedures in the military," says Rep. Nita Lowey (D) of New York.

In interviews conducted with military women over the past few months, the vast majority have said they have encountered some kind of harassment. But most said it stopped once they called attention to it. They also expressed confidence in the military chain of command.

Sergeant Beck says she tells her recruits that of course there's harassment in the Army, just as you'll find in corporate America.

"But because the Army is in the public eye, you're going to hear about it more, but it's also going to be dealt with better," she says.

"I wouldn't trade my career in the Army for anything else," says Beck. "To me it's the only place in the world where I'm treated the same as my male counterparts, because I'm a soldier and so is he. They take the gender out of it - that's the way we play the game."

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