Susan Barnes

Don't Ask, Do Tell

Starting with the Navy's female combat pilots.
In the summer of 1994, five female pilots were assigned to serve aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, a ship subsequently dubbed "The Babe" because of its female contingent. Two of the women, Lieutenants Carey Lohrenz and Kara Hultgreen, were qualified to fly F-14 fighter planes. That October, Hultgreen died trying to land her F-14. According to David Horowitz, president of the right-wing Center for the Study of Popular Culture, "Hultgreen was a Navy pilot who would have been grounded before her death had she been a man and held to normal Navy standards of competence."

(In complaints that surfaced later, however, the female pilots claimed they were ostracized and that some commanders had consistently given them lower grades on training missions than their male counterparts received.)

The following April, Lohrenz, who was preparing to fly her first combat mission, over Iraq's "no-fly zone," was attacked by Elaine Donnelly in a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Donnelly had provided the paper with information that had been stolen from Lohrenz's training records, then doctored and distorted, Barnes says.

Donnelly claimed Lohrenz was unqualified to fly the fighter plane. The following month, her credibility and confidence destroyed, Lohrenz was called before a Field Naval Aviation Evaluations Board, which subsequently grounded her.

Barnes is now representing Lohrenz in a libel suit against Donnelly, the San Diego paper and the Washington Times. She is also suing the Navy for violating the privacy act.

But all that pales in comparison with the Aberdeen scandal. After those harassment allegations were made public, the Army set up a hotline to collect complaints. In November 1996 Army Sergeant Major Brenda Hoster, who'd recently retired, tried to file a complaint against her supervisor, Sergeant Major Gene McKinney.

McKinney had sexually harassed her and fondled her during a business trip to Hawaii in April of that year, Hoster said. But the hotline operator refused to take her complaint. Hoster claims she was told that McKinney was of such a high rank (he's the Army's top enlisted officer) that more than one woman would have to come forward before the Army would investigate.

Hoster remained silent until the following month, when she learned that McKinney had been appointed to a "senior panel" to investigate sexual harassment of women in the Army. She contacted McKinney and demanded that he recuse himself; when he refused, she got in touch with WANDAS.

Since then, Hoster's case has become a cause celebre. Five more military women have come forward alleging that McKinney harassed them. All of the scenarios are similar, complete with an alleged come-on during which McKinney supposedly spoke of the poor state of his marriage and attempted to garner sympathy over the death of his son.

A court-martial for McKinney is slated to begin February 3. He is facing twenty counts of sexual misconduct.

The McKinney case has pushed WANDAS to the forefront, and Barnes has become a nationally known spokeswoman for women in the military. But she hopes that won't always be true.

Someday, she says, these women must feel that it's safe to speak for themselves.

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