Violating the Comradeship of Women in Uniform


July 07, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- Major Rhonda Cornum has a way to understand what happened to her. It was war, after all.

An enemy shot down her plane in the Persian Gulf War, breaking both her arms. An enemy bullet lodged in her right shoulder. And an enemy hand violated her body, vaginally and rectally.

When she talked about her ordeal as a prisoner of war last week, the strong-minded flight surgeon said that the indecent assault ranked as ''unpleasant, that's all.'' Other POWs were beaten, shocked with cattle prods, starved. There is a word to describe her endurance: Bravery.

But what of the military women who suffered from what can only be called the ''friendly fire'' of sexual assault? The women who were attacked by the men on their side, our side. The women brutalized by their officers, or their peers. What of the American men who treated American women as if they were the enemy?

One of them, Jacqueline Ortiz, a 29-year-old reservist, told a Senate panel last week that she was ''forcibly sodomized'' by her sergeant in broad daylight near the Iraq border. She said: ''I would rather have been shot down and killed that way, than have to deal with what I deal with daily.''

Another, Paula Coughlin, a 30-year-old Navy lieutenant, has told the country that she was passed down the now-infamous gantlet on the third floor of the Tailhook convention hotel as naval pilots grabbed her breasts, pulled at her pants and chanted: ''Admiral's aide, Admiral's aide!'' She said: ''I thought, I have no control over these guys. I'm going to be gang-raped.''

Should this behavior shock us? In the past few years, one study after another has shown that two-thirds to three-quarters of military women have been subjected to everything from sexual ''joking'' to physical assault.

But the war in the Gulf brought home images of military men and women performing their jobs in the rough and egalitarian camaraderie of wartime. In the wake of that war, Congress lifted the ban against women flying combat missions.

Now, the dark underbelly of this story. Along with advancement, harassment. Along with the new Army, the last bastion. Call it backlash. Or just call it the gantlet.

The tale of the Tailhook has captured public attention because it was not the act of a single criminal, a military renegade. The men who ended up mauling some 26 women -- half of them fellow officers -- were our elite, the aircraft-carrier pilots, the Top Guns, the present and former hot shots. So were the men who watched and did nothing.

Rosemary Mariner, the president of Women Military Aviators and a member of Tailhook herself, compares these assaults to what happened to blacks in the old South. She calls them a ''tar and feathering.''

She believes the atmosphere was poisoned not just by booze and strippers and porno flicks. Psychological permission for the disparagement of women was also granted at the Tailhook symposium, says Ms. Mariner, when a chant went up against women pilots on aircraft carriers -- ''No Women in TAC Air!'' No senior aviator stopped it.

Such hostility was seen two years ago when a female Naval Academy student was chained to a urinal by male midshipmen. It was seen three weeks ago, when an obscene banner directed at Rep. Pat Schroeder, member of the Armed Services Committee, was unfurled at Miramar Naval Air Station in California. The backlash, the gantlet is not just on the third floor of the Hilton hotel in Las Vegas.

But it finally came into focus there, among an elite. ''Pilots are in a very dangerous job,'' says Judith Stiehm, who wrote ''Arms and the Enlisted Woman.'' ''They develop strong special bonds and the military has used manliness as an essential part of bonding. But how do you prove you are a man if women also do it?'' The men at Tailhook were, she says, engaged in the oldest and most widespread sort of harassment: ''Peers making life so miserable they run the person out.''

When Paula Coughlin saw the men in the hallway, it never occurred to her to be afraid. After all, she was one them. A pilot, an officer. Now, the woman who gave a name and a face to this crime won't let them run her out.

The Navy secretary's head has rolled. Jobs have been cut and many promotions held up. But in the deeply scandalous investigation, 1,500 men of Tailhook have maintained an oath of silence more like the Mafia than the military. Only two men have been identified.

Many in the Navy have found it easier to close ranks against women than with them. That silence carries the message about the gantlet as backlash. That silence carries the message that women are the outsiders, indeed, the enemy.

For the honor of Major Rhonda Cornum, and every woman who signed up to fight for the country, the Navy must know: This will not stand.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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