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CONDUCT UNBECOMING

MILITARY WOMEN UPSET ABOUT INEQUITIES GET A VOICE--AND LEGAL HELP--FROM CIVILIANS.

It was early in 1993, and Susan Barnes was furious. Like millions of other Americans, she'd been following the Tailhook scandal and the investigation that ensued. Not one of the 140 Navy and Marine Corps officers recommended for discipline would face criminal charges. Of the 35 admirals investigated for their roles in the case, thirty received what was termed "nonpunitive" discipline. And, Barnes noted, the women who complained of sexual harassment and assault during Tailhook's 1991 convention were being treated as pariahs.

To Barnes, it seemed that no one other than her longtime pal, Colorado congresswoman Pat Schroeder, was "standing up and yelling" about the "anachronistic attitudes" toward, and the inequitable treatment of, the military women. "Where's the organization?" she demanded of Schroeder during lunch one day. "Where are their advocates?" The answer was, "There are none."

There are now.
Last April, Barnes--an attorney and former Denver district judge--helped found the Colorado-based WANDAS Fund and WANDAS Watch, whose growing list of members intends to serve as a voice for military women in active duty, in the Reserves and in the National Guard. The Watch group was established to lobby Congress and the Department of Defense, while the Fund was established to provide legal support and try to mold public opinion about issues of concern to military women. (WANDAS, which Barnes concedes is "an imperfect acronym," is short for Women Active in our Nation's Defense, their Advocates and Supporters.)

"The theory is," Barnes says, "that it is a coalition of military and civilian men and women. You use the civilians to stand up and do the yelling, because it would be very career-threatening for women in the services to do it themselves. Military women can't do it without putting their careers on the line. So we do it at their direction, with their cooperation and participation."

Even the act of joining an advocacy group is considered dangerous by some military women, Barnes adds, and for that reason, they are offered promise that their names will not be released without prior permission. One woman who seems not to mind being associated with them publicly, however, is Colorado Air National Guard Captain Alison Ruttenberg--she is a registered lobbyist for WANDAS Watch. Ruttenberg and six other present and former Guard members filed suit against the Guard last September claiming, among other things, that they'd been harassed and discriminated against ("Base Behavior," April 20). Although WANDAS members say they are supportive of Ruttenberg and her suit, the group is not actively involved in it.

The group plotted out its agenda last October at a summit in Vail with the help of a handpicked group of military women, some of whom flew from Washington, D.C., to attend. Although the civilian members had expected that their focus would be sexual harassment, they learned that the problems went much deeper and that the military women felt drastic measures were needed.

"We do have a lot of lawyers on our board," says Barnes, "but we were unsure if litigation was the way to go. And one of the [military] women looked at us and said, `You're going to have to sue my service. That's the only way they'll listen.'"

The following month, Barnes, along with Denver attorney Wendy Davis and one other WANDAS member-attorney, filed suit against the Secretary of Defense and a host of military brass on behalf of Air Force sergeant Zenaida Martinez, who claims she was retaliated against for filing a sexual harassment complaint. Then, last month, Martinez and three other women representing the four branches of military service were invited to speak to a congressional committee about the issue of sexual harassment in the military.

WANDAS member Doris Besikof also has testified before Congress about what she and others believe to be substandard medical care provided to women veterans. "I've been working with veterans for sixteen years," says Besikof, a Denver attorney. "And I've noticed a similarity in their problems, a common, unnecessary abusive situation. When you enter the military, the first thing you're taught is absolute obedience to the command. What has not happened is that the command does not understand that their first obligation is to protect their troops."

Besikof currently acts as co-counsel in a military-related, civil-rights case that has drawn national attention. She is helping to represent the husband and parents of soldier Alexis Colon, who killed herself in 1992. The complaint claims that the 24-year-old Colon, an Army Specialist 4th class, took her life because she was threatened with an Article 15 (a prelude to a court martial) after filing a sexual harassment complaint. Colon left a note saying she was "too ashamed to live."

"These women have the right to live their lives without interference like this," Besikof says.

Denver Clerk and Recorder Arie Taylor can relate to Besikof's call to arms. One of the first to climb aboard WANDAS, Taylor not only has impressive political connections and twelve years' experience as a state representative under her belt, she served in the Air Force from 1951 until 1955. She is now president of WANDAS Watch.

"I've always felt that I needed to be doing more about some of the problems that existed when I was in the military," says Taylor. "That was one of the reasons I did not re-enlist--discrimination."

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