Combat readiness at issue Navy woman pilot is seeking equality at sea.

July 27, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

ABOARD THE USS JOHN F. KENNEDY -- Lt. Vicki Peterson sat at a table in a below-decks wardroom on this aircraft carrier one morning last week surrounded by about 15 officers, all of them men.

Even this far from the action on the flight deck, the thunder and the deep, throaty roar of F-14 Tomcats being catapulted into the cobalt-blue Caribbean sky could be heard as well as felt.

More than 100 pilots and their support crews -- again, all men -- were conducting training operations on the 4 1/2 -acre deck, launching and tailhook-trapping warplanes on a wind-blown day about 100 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico.

Ms. Peterson, a pilot in her mid-20s who has been in the Navy eight years, was one of only 10 women on this gigantic carrier, which is home to more than 5,000 men.

And only a couple of the women aboard were Navy; the rest were with a visiting presidential commission that is studying whether to recommend dramatic changes in the role of women in the military.

Reforms that the commission might recommend to Congress by its November deadline could include letting women into combat, and in the process removing the glass ceiling that lack of battlefield experience has on any military career. President Bush has pledged to go along with whatever the commission recommends.

From on-board testimony before the commission and in interviews, it's clear that most of the men on the JFK believe -- like it or not -- that women soon would be serving alongside them aboard ship and in the air.

And although Ms. Peterson eagerly seeks the same opportunities available to her male counterparts, she nodded in agreement time after time when they complained about the difficulties that have arisen since the Navy blazed ahead of the other armed services in more fully integrating women into non-combat operations.

Among these are sexual affairs and sexual harassment, women reassigned because of pregnancy and leaving units understaffed, single mothers having no one to handle emergencies at home, and wives, who are opposed to women at sea, stopping their husbands from re-enlisting.

Ms. Peterson was the first to say that "women in the military should not be looked at as an equal-opportunity issue, but on the basis of combat readiness."

She asked for a level playing field -- no favors for women, just a chance for women to serve on combatant aircraft or vessels permanently in order to prove their abilities and their bravery.

At the commission's hearings in Washington and Chicago, most of the servicewomen who appeared expressed strong doubts that the military would significantly open up opportunities for them anytime soon.

At issue is a web of concerns that range from the effects of mixed-gender units on combat readiness to the reaction of spouses back home.

Navy officials at Atlantic Fleet headquarters say that if the military can improve race relations and virtually eradicate drug use in the all-volunteer force, as it has, then it can deal with opposition to women on combat ships.

"This is nothing more than a common-sense, middle-ground approach that is supported by the Navy command," said one official. "You will find that peer pressure will take over and attitudes will change."

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