Navy now ousting would-be pilot who was sexually harassed

June 30, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In a surprising reversal, the Navy is no longer trying to persuade a sexually harassed officer to remain in the service and is moving to discharge her.

The decision to end the career of Lt. Rebecca Hansen, 28, who failed pilot training, was made after she declined other Navy job offers and made three demands -- an apology from Navy Secretary John Dalton, the upgrading of her low performance ratings to "outstanding" and a return to flight school.

Lieutenant Hansen contends that she received a failing grade in helicopter pilot school as "reprisal" for having successfully brought a sexual-harassment case against her instructor. The Navy has rejected that assertion, along with the lieutenant's demands.

Lieutenant Hansen, who was notified Monday that she would be discharged, said in an interview: "It's pretty straightforward. If they are going to separate me, then that's what they are going to do. What we are fighting right now is that there is a policy [against sexual harassment], but the practice is not going along with the policy."

The Navy's treatment of Lieutenant Hansen contributed to the sudden withdrawal last week of a top admiral's nomination to be commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific.

The Navy has been tainted by sexual harassment charges since the 1991 Tailhook scandal, which led to the early retirement in April of Adm. Frank B. Kelso II as chief of naval operations.

"The bottom line is they are doing some things better, but it is still not clear that the commitment is there," said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.

Lieutenant Hansen complained of being sexually harassed by one of her flight instructors at helicopter pilot training school in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1992. The instructor, who was given a letter of reprimand, has left the service.

When Lieutenant Hansen subsequently failed the pilot's course, she blamed her failure on retaliation from other male instructors for the harassment charge she had successfully leveled at their colleague.

An investigation by the Navy inspector general found no basis for her reprisal charge, although it found that a threat of retaliation had been made. The Defense Department's inspector general endorsed the Navy's finding.

The issue landed on the Pentagon desk of Adm. Stanley Arthur, vice chief of naval operations, in April, the month he was nominated by President Clinton to be commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command.

A veteran aviator, the admiral reviewed the reports, decided that no reprisal was involved and affirmed Lieutenant Hansen's failure in the course. He wrote in his report: "I had a very little confidence she could successfully operate an aircraft in an operational environment."

That might have been the end of her career. In these days of military reductions, officers who fail training programs are routinely released from the service. But because Lieutenant Hansen had been sexually harassed, the Navy decided to offer her another career.

She interviewed with Navy Secretary Dalton; the assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, Frederick F. Y. Pang; and the new chief of naval operations, Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda.

On Friday, Admiral Boorda took time during a visit to the naval training center at Great Lakes, Ill., where Lieutenant Hansen is being treated for a knee injury, to offer her a job in the Navy's Office of Women's Policy in the Pentagon.

"What is ironic," said the lieutenant, "is that if they won't deal with the issues of my case, how can I offer any help or hope to someone else if I have to sell out in order to get a job? They made a lot of offers to entice me to go away. To accept would have been to compromise my integrity."

Her case has become an issue on Capitol Hill, with members of the congressional delegation from her own state, Minnesota, attacking Admiral Arthur for having affirmed the decision to flunk the officer.

Opposition from Sen. Dave Durenberger, a Minnesota Republican threatened to delay Senate confirmation of Admiral Arthur, who commanded the U.S. 7th Fleet off the coast of Iran during the Persian Gulf war, to be Pacific commander.

Anxious to fill one of the nation's key military posts quickly, Admiral Boorda asked Admiral Arthur whether he would consider withdrawing his name from the nomination. Admiral Arthur did so Friday.

"Admiral Arthur's nomination went down in flames not because of personal misconduct, but because he stood by the professional judgment of Navy instructors who said that Lieutenant Hansen was not qualified," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center on Military Readiness, a think tank specializing in military staffing. She called for Admiral Arthur's nomination to be reinstated.

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