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."
Taylor worked as an instructor at a Women's Air Force training center in San Antonio. Her husband was career military, and she wanted to stay in, too. She tested for a recruiter's position, was ranked first, and she received orders to go to West Virginia. On the evening of her farewell party from Texas, she received word that her orders had been rescinded. "It came all the way from the Pentagon," she says. "The little ladies in West Virginia did not want a black woman coming to recruit their little girls. That's exactly what my colonel told me." Taylor, disgusted, declined to re-enlist.
Racial discrimination still exists in the military, Taylor says, but it is not as blatant as it was forty years ago. What is blatant and even more prevalent, she says, is gender discrimination. And she's not shy about telling people so. After spotting retired general Colin Powell, who is black, at a party, she marched over to him and gave him a piece of her mind.
"I reminded him that he wouldn't be where he was had it not been for desegregation and the civil rights movement," she says. "I reminded him that history repeats itself. And I asked him, `Why are you denying women the same opportunity?'"
Taylor's political connections are helping to smooth the way for another WANDAS project. WANDAS members are drafting a proposal to tighten military regulations regarding sexual harassment, which California Democrat Ron Dellums--a Taylor crony--is expected to sponsor. Dellums, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, is to present the proposal to Congress in May or June as an amendment to the federal budget bill.
The groups say they're still operating on a shoestring, however. When in D.C., members bunk with Barnes's sister, who lives in the area. They dig into their own pockets for airfare and taxis. They hope that will end later this year when fundraising projects get off the ground. Their goal is to raise $500,000, which would enable them to hire a litigation staff and a public-information officer, furnish an office and fund future projects. They've already targeted dozens of corporations that they intend to hit up for money.
The fundraising should be helped along nicely, notes CPA and member Yvonne Englard Zuber, by the fact that WANDAS Fund recently received a tax status enabling donations to them to be tax-deductible.
It appears that WANDAS has a long way to go, both in terms of raising money and in changing attitudes.
"Susie [Barnes] and I had lunch last year in the executive dining room of the Pentagon with two high-ranking women officers," Davis recalls. "As we were leaving, one of them said it was good that there were not four of us in uniform because, otherwise, we would have been hassled."
"When they got back to their offices," says Barnes, "they would have been questioned by their male compatriots. They would have been asked, `What are you doing? What are you plotting?' It was like being in a time warp. Like suddenly we were back to the inception of the civil rights movement."
"Yup," Taylor chimes in. "It's like when four black people gather on a corner--get the helicopter over them.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.
- Rest of the Best of Denver 2015 — and Kyle Clark's "Job Well Done"
- Deputy Isaac Nail After Being Asked Why He Hit and Ran: "That's a Good Question"
- Gordon Klingenschmitt Claims Religious Persecution Amid Michelle Wilkins Fiasco
- Update: Fort Collins, ACLU Settle Over Controversial Panhandling Ordinance