Women Still Marching Into Military

Widening charges of sexual harassment at US bases have not deterred new recruits

Last Thursday, as part of her job as a US Army recruiter, Sgt. Rana Williams traveled to Pope High School in Marietta, Ga., where she delivered a sales pitch to 60 teenagers.

Her visit came as news reports across the country focused on allegations of rape and sexual abuse of female recruits in the Army.

Yet during her hour-long presentation, not a single student asked the sergeant about sexual harassment in the military. "They just wanted to know why women can't fight in combat or fly fighter jets," Sergeant Williams says.

Of the 60 students, three women and one young man are interested in signing up. Not a bad day's work for a recruiter.

Recruiters elsewhere say they are seeing the same thing. As a result, they don't expect the widening scandal at bases nationwide to greatly affect the record numbers of women who have been entering military service in recent years.

It isn't that prospective recruits aren't concerned about sexual harassment, experts say. But the military is not much different from the rest of society, where sexual harassment remains a significant problem.

Women figure it is no different than in the civilian world, says Georgia Sadler of the Women's Research and Education Institute (WREI) in Washington.

In many respects it may even be better. The Department of Defense is now the world's largest employer of women. There are 195,000 women currently on active duty, roughly 13 percent of America's soldiers. Twenty years ago, women made up only 2 percent of the armed forces. (In addition, the department employs more than 370,000 civilian women employees.)

Opportunities for women soldiers are expanding. Although they are barred from serving in direct combat positions, more than 90 percent of all jobs in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines are now open to women.

There are 186 American women pilots flying combat aircraft, and 141 others are in training. The Air Force has four women in the astronaut program and the Navy has one. Among the nation's highest ranking women are six Air Force generals, five Navy admirals, five Army generals, and one Marine Corps general. The secretary of the Air Force is a woman.

Given the Defense Department's desire to open the armed services to women, the current scandal at the Army Ordnance Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Md. - like the Navy's Tailhook scandal - is an embarrassment to the US military.

So far, a captain and two sergeants at Aberdeen have been charged with crimes ranging from rape to illegal fraternization with subordinates. Two other sergeants received noncriminal sanctions.

The case has aimed a spotlight on the issue of sexual harassment in the military. A toll-free hotline established to investigate the Aberdeen case has yielded calls from women on military bases across the country. Investigators are working on more than 500 new cases as a result of calls made within the past two weeks. The Pentagon is now facing the prospect that sexual harassment will be in the headlines for months to come with charges filed on one base after another.

Last week, a drill sergeant at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., was court-martialed after admitting he had sex with three female privates. Ten other drill sergeants have been relieved of duty or are under investigation at that base for allegedly abusing female recruits.

THE scandal at Fort Leonard Wood prompted recent recruit Kneesha Minner to rethink her decision to join the military. But she says she decided: "It's probably the same in the civilian world."

Ms. Minner says she wanted to be a soldier for a variety of reasons. Growing up in an economically depressed area of St. Louis, she thought it seemed like a good way to get ahead. The Army offered college benefits and, maybe, the chance to buy a house with a Veterans Administration loan.

It's not just the job and the money, she says. "I like the discipline of the military; also, the experiences it offers," Minner says.

"Women join the military for the same reasons that men do," says Ms. Sadler, director of WREI's women in the military project. "They see it as a good way to earn some money for education, to get job training, to travel overseas, and there is an element of patriotism."

For some, it is a ticket out of a troubled urban neighborhood and into the American mainstream. For others it is a chance to demonstrate that they can be successful, contribute to their country, and compete on an equal footing with men.

The first question many women recruits ask is, "Can I make it?" says Sgt. Paula Pressley, an Army recruiter in Baltimore. Most recruits are more worried about whether they will physically survive basic training than whether they may face sexual harassment, she says.

"These kids I'm dealing with are inner-city, hard-core kids," she says. "Sexual harassment is the last thing on their minds."

Sergeant Pressley adds: "Opportunity is more on their minds; 'Where can I get money for college, I'm inner-city, I'm not going to get an academic scholarship, I don't play sports, I need job training.' That is what their priorities are."

Sgt. Sheila Jackson, an Army recruiter in Minneapolis, says some of her recruits are asking about the charges at Aberdeen.

"Right now I have nine females getting ready to ship off to basic training, and they have asked me about it," she says. "I told them our policies and the recourse they have [to report any violators], and if all else fails I told them there is a chaplain on every post they can go to." She says none of her recruits has backed out.

In Des Moines, Sgt. Mary Fitzsimmons offers this advice to her female recruits: "No matter where you go, no matter what job you have, you are going to be working in a co-ed environment." She adds: "If a career in the military is something you want, then do it. But you have to remember to take care of yourself first, and if you are sexually harassed, you have got to report it, because that is the only way you are going to make it better, not only for yourself but for everyone who comes after you."

*Melissa Jaco contributed to this report from Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

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