Revisiting Integration of Sexes in US Military

Army's McKinney cleared of harassment Friday, but Congress tackles larger issue Tuesday.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Until recently, at the US Army's largest training base at Fort Jackson, S.C., some male drill sergeants were so nervous about potential sexual-harassment charges that they ordered male and female trainees to stand three feet apart in the mess hall line.

Men and women soldiers were also forbidden from talking together or touching one another, even to secure the feet of a fellow trainee doing sit-ups.

"It's been almost a siege mentality," says Major Mat Moten, a Fort Jackson training commander who until recently oversaw 1,200 male and female soldiers undergoing basic training at the fort.

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The eruption of high-profile sexual-harassment cases - such as those at the Army's advanced training base in Aberdeen, Md., and more recently with the trial of Army Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney - have had strong repercussions on male-female relations in large parts of the US military, experts say.

On Friday, Sergeant Major McKinney was acquitted of 18 counts involving six military women who accused him of sexual harassment. He was found guilty of a charge of obstructing justice.

Such cases are driving a far-reaching, high-level debate over whether recent experiments in the decades-long effort to more fully integrate women and men in the military - as in Fort Jackson's basic-training program - have gone too far.

On Tuesday, Congress is scheduled to begin hearings with testimony from ranking leaders of all the nation's armed services on the question of gender integration. Also this week, Defense Secretary William Cohen will weigh new recommendations on whether men and women should be resegregated for much of basic and advanced training. The recommendations follow a review launched last December after a special panel concluded that segregation of male and female recruits is warranted.

Although the debate focuses on concerns such as readiness and the rigor of training, experts say it is often framed by more deep-seated ideological differences over the place of women in the US military.

"A lot of people are still not happy with women in the military." says David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md.

The number of women in military service has steadily expanded since the 1970s, with women currently representing nearly 14 percent of the 1.4 million active duty personnel, compared with only 1.6 percent in 1973. Nevertheless, bringing men and women together in basic training began as recently as 1994 in the Army and Navy, for example.

Opponents of integration argue that it is distracting for the young recruits and lowers standards. Authors of the Kassebaum Baker report, for example, said the Army, Navy, and other services should follow the example of the Marine Corps, which has strongly resisted integration of basic training.

The outbreak of sexual harassment cases - such as the Navy's 1991 Tailhook scandal and incidents of rape and sexual assault revealed in late 1996 at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds - have fueled such arguments.

By its own account, the military, with its youthful population, close quarters, and regimented life, is still grappling with major problems of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. According to a 1995 sexual harassment survey by the Defense Department, more than half of women in all the services report unwanted sexual attention.

Yet advocates of integration say that sexual harassment is most common in services, such as the Marines, where women remain relatively segregated. Indeed, they argue that tackling the problem requires a strong commitment by military leaders to greater integration and the promotion of women as full partners in all areas of military life.

"As long as [women] are restricted in their assignments they are looked at by many as second-class citizens, and that causes some of the sexual harassment," says Jeff Whitman, a veteran field artillery officer and professor at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.

MOREOVER, proponents cite studies showing that recruits perform better when the genders are mixed, and emphasize that if men and women are to fight together, they should train together. "The gender integrated military is working," says Elizabeth Bilby, of the Pentagon's Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS).

In January, DACOWITS reported that most members of the armed services favor more early integration of men and women. The Army, Navy, and Air Force are expected to support a continuation of that policy this week, partly out of a recognition that the armed forces increasingly depend on women recruits.

Nevertheless, the struggles and challenges of integration are still playing out at military facilities around the country, such as the sprawling Fort Jackson. In 1994, when women first entered men's basic training units at the fort, there was resistance from drill instructors used to an all-male environment, according to fort officers. Women trainees complained of derogatory remarks and unfair treatment.

When the Aberdeen scandal broke, some male drill sergeants at Fort Jackson and elsewhere reacted defensively, enforcing divisions between male and female trainees that led to poor gender relations, even within the same unit, Moten and others say.

"I call it the post-Aberdeen, post-Tailhook syndrome. We run into a lot of people who are afraid to do anything," says Ms. Bilby.

Today at Fort Jackson, the repercussions from the scandals are only beginning to recede as Army efforts to strengthen sexual harassment training and promote egalitarian values take hold, experts say. "I think both men's sensitivity and women's willingness to speak up have increased," says Connie Best, a psychologist who treats military women at the National Crime Victims Research Center in Charleston, S.C.

Despite the problems, Maj. Moten says he speaks for many of his military colleagues when he concludes that resegregation would be "a very big step backwards."

* David Moniz contributed to this story from Columbia, S.C.

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