Bad news for G.I. Jane?

In the wake of Aberdeen, a female military specialist suggests that separating men and women during basic training is not a women's rights issue, but a national security one.

Published January 9, 1998 7:38PM (EST)

For some women, it was more like a sex ring than a military education. At Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, sexual harassment, rape and adultery allegedly became part of the unofficial curriculum for 50 women. In Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., a group of drill sergeants was accused of having sex with their female trainees. In the last year, training bases became known more as sexual proving grounds than as places where young men and women learn how to become good soldiers.

Last month a Pentagon-appointed panel released its recommendation to remedy the military's sexual-misconduct problems: Separate the men from the women in basic training. After interviewing 1,000 recruits and 500 instructors, the 11-member panel, which was formed in the wake of Aberdeen, found that mixed-gender training was hurting unit cohesion and that many men and women had become so concerned about sexual harassment, they avoided talking to each other unless a witness was present.

The panel, led by former Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, stopped short of endorsing complete separation, and instead recommended single sex core units -- the platoon in the Army, the flight in the Air Force and the division in the Navy. Men and women would still be able to march together and train together in field and physical activities, which account for approximately 70 percent of their time. This, according to the report, would allow men and women to focus more on training.

Currently, the Marines is the only branch of the armed services that trains men and women separately. The Air Force instituted gender-integrated training in 1976, the Army in 1993 and the Navy in 1994. The panel's other recommendations include raising the physical standards for women in the military, hiring more women drill instructors and separating men and women in different barracks. The chiefs of the three branches have three months to respond to the report.

Salon recently spoke with Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, an independent think tank that specializes in military personnel issues, about the Pentagon's recommendations, the physical differences between men and women and the risks of putting pregnant women on combat ships.

Do you think the panel's recommendations are a knee-jerk response to the recent highly publicized sexual harassment cases in the military?

I wouldn't say that the Kassebaum report was a knee-jerk response. I think it was well-written and had original conclusions that are grounded more in reality than in theory. A good sound personnel policy encourages discipline, not indiscipline. And to throw young men and women together in situations where they live and work and sleep together without any type of separation or privacy between the sexes is asking for trouble, and trouble is what we've seen. A sex club atmosphere developed at Aberdeen, and it exists at some of the basic training bases. There have been sexual tradeoffs between drill sergeants and trainees and sometimes abusive relationships. I see [the problems at] Aberdeen as a direct result of the gender-integration policies of the Army.

Many women's rights organizations say that the separation of the sexes is a step backward for women.

This is not a step forward, backward or whatever. The issue is, what is the best way to train men and women in military operation? And the evidence is overwhelming that the best way to train them is to train them separately. I just don't see it as a women's rights issue -- it's a national security issue.

What will separating the sexes at the basic training level accomplish?

It will do what it has in the Marine Corps and that is improve the training for both men and women. I visited a number of Marine bases myself as a member of the Presidential Commission in 1992, and I don't think I talked to a single woman Marine who would have training any other way, especially at the basic training level. Transforming civilians into military people is a very complicated, intense process as it is. To introduce the distraction of sexuality is something the Marine women don't want. This policy was changed under the Clinton administration.

How will single-sex units improve the situation for women?

I think they would find more confidence as they go through the training. They would not have to compete with men when men have the advantage. And I think they would be more ready to go into the next stage of training, and the Marine Corps experience bears that out.

Do you see any positive aspects of gender-integrated training?

No, not really. In fact, the only positive results of it, as claimed by the proponents, are quite minimal. All they can point to is an Army Research Institute study that showed an increase in morale among the women. But, at the same time, there was a dip in the morale of the men. My question is, why do they claim success can be determined only by the morale of the women? The purpose of training is to come up with very confident soldiers, it's just not a matter of morale.

Once they're separated from men, would you recommend higher physical standards for women than the ones that exist now?

If you did that, you would have to accept the fact that fewer women would succeed because they are at a disadvantage. It's just like the Olympics, you have women champions and you have men champions in many events where women are at a disadvantage. If you merge them together, you would never have any female champions or you'd have very few.

Do you think these lower standards for women, such as requiring a woman to throw a grenade 25 yards while men must throw one 35 yards, contributes to the perception that women are less capable?

If you are in a foxhole with somebody who you know cannot throw a grenade very far, you don't want to be in the foxhole with that person. They are endangering themselves and others. There are biological differences between men and women
that are well-documented, and women are at a disadvantage. Women can be physically built up from exercise and Olympic training and become stronger than they are, but compared to men, they're only going to reach a peak of, perhaps, the lower-ranking average male.

After the death of Lt. Kara Hultgreen, who was portrayed by Meg Ryan in the film "Courage Under Fire," you raised questions about her qualifications to fly.

Lt. Kara Hultgreen was a courageous young women, she was one of the first two to be trained to fly the F-14, she was given a lot of leeway and training concessions that probably would have been denied a male aviator. On the day she died, she happened to make the same error she made twice before in training and had received a pink sheet for it, which is a signal of difficulty -- usually one or two is cause to disqualify you from aviation, but she had four of them. And the second female aviator had seven, but both of them were allowed to graduate to the boat. After Hultgreen's death, the Navy kept insisting that the accident was due to engine failure, but most of the aviator community knew that that wasn't the case.

Do these lower standards for women put everyone at risk?

Oh yes. The backseater in Hultgreen's plane was almost killed; if she had crashed on the carrier itself, hundreds of people could have been killed. The fact that her life alone was lost is one too many. I certainly don't want to see it happen ever again. It's a matter of safety. It's not a women's rights issue, even though some people try to present it as such.

Do pregnant women in the military put the country at risk?

When they are needed on ship, and they are not there, that does cause a huge readiness problem. What I think needs to end is the very generous benefits that are offered in the Navy and the other services that actually encourage and subsidize single parenthood. The Navy doesn't need more single mothers, no matter how good those sailors are. If they're not there when the ship leaves the docks or they have to leave before the cruise is over, they're not an asset to the ship, they're a liability.

How about if they are there, but they're pregnant on the ship?

There are serious hazards that escalate all the more when you talk about combat ships. People don't like to talk about this, but it's a real problem: the risk for birth defects. You have everything from nuclear power to high vibration noise, you have toxic substances, you have all kinds of hazards that especially in the very early weeks and months of pregnancy could severely impact the unborn child. And there haven't even been studies done on the effects of all these factors.

Should pregnant women serve at all?

No. We have bent over backwards to advance the careers of the pregnant women at the expense of three other parties: mainly the unborn child, the captains of the ships and the Navy officials themselves. Those interests need to be balanced. Right now all the interests are skewed in favor of the mother.

By Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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