It has been called "one of our deepest military secrets" - sexual abuse of women in the armed forces.
Studies in the past decade have alerted military officials to clandestine assaults and the more widespread problem of sexual harassment. In 1989 alone, for example, 11 percent of Army men and women said they had been assaulted by a fellow service member. And two out of three women, in a study of 20,000 military personnel, said they had been sexually harassed.
But the much publicized manhandling of female aviators at the 1991 Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas, Nev., and the sexual assaults against women soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf war may prove the real catalyst to change within this most male of men's clubs, women veterans and researchers who study the issue say.
"It's an issue whose time has come," says Carolyn Becraft, a military policy analyst for the Women's Research and Education Institute.
"What Tailhook served to do was show harassment at its worst . . . and command indifference at its most extreme. With Tailhook, it was so extreme, it forced the institution to look at itself. Not just the Navy, all of the services. It's forcing them to look at the culture . . . and how it contributes to harassment."
Other factors, too, have contributed to change. There is a greater awareness of sexual harassment in the civilian community. Women make up 11.5 percent of the military. More women are serving in Congress, some as a result of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy.
In the past year the military landscape has undergone several changes:
* In response to a scathing report on the Navy's handling of the Tailhook incident, the Naval Investigative Service is being overhauled and its military chief replaced with a civilian. The Navy also has proposed amending the Uniform Code of Military Justice to expressly outlaw sexual harassment.
* The Army is developing sexual harassment training for all personnel.
* The Department of Veterans Affairs established a first-of-its-kind center in Boston this year to study post-traumatic stress syndrome in female veterans -- attributed in some cases to sexual assault.
* Because sexual harassment data are not gathered centrally, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a civilian panel that reports to the secretary of defense, is seeking five years' worth of data on rape and sexual assault of military women to see whether the reporting system for such incidents should be revamped or replaced with a uniform process.
In a 1992 study of sexual harassment of military women, the National Women's Law Center reported that few women file grievances because they have little confidence in the system or fear retribution. Officers "at the highest ranks of the military" must rigorously enforce policies against sexual harassment and
be held accountable for their actions, the study says.