Case Shows Complexity of Sexual Harassment Disputes

July 17, 1994|By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Picture this: The Navy's top admiral, on a meet-the-sailors base visit, goes out of his way to offer a Pentagon job to a junior lieutenant who has failed flight training and faces discharge.

Why? Because Lt. Rebecca Hansen, 28, had been sexually harassed in 1992 and was blaming her expulsion from helicopter pilot school a year later on retaliation for her sexual-harassment complaint.

After Lieutenant Hansen refused all offers -- including the admiral's -- of a nonflying career in the Navy, the service began discharge proceedings against her last month, the normal fate of failed pilots in these days of military cutbacks.

But not every sexually harassed officer is offered a job personally by the chief of naval operations. Nor do such officers usually get to see the secretary of the Navy, the assistant secretary of the Navy and the vice chief of naval operations to make their $H demands.

That Lieutenant Hansen did all that is a reflection of her own persistence, the advice of a Navy lawyer, the political clout of her local senator and the Navy's post-Tailhook sensitivity to sexual harassment cases.

That she ultimately failed to get what she wanted -- a second chance to earn her wings -- is a measure of the Navy's determination not to compromise its performance standards, whatever the pressure, Navy officials say.

In this case, political correctness bumped into military priority.

The prospect is that sexual harassment cases could get even more complicated. Rep. Ron Dellums, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has introduced legislation outlawing reprisals against any member of the services who makes a formal complaint about what he or she "reasonably believes" to be harassment or discrimination.

Lieutenant Hansen's experience raises the question of how far the image-bruised Navy needs to go in handling allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation.

"I see it as evidence of the Navy overcompensating for mistakes made during the Tailhook investigation," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness.

Mrs. Donnelly, who served on the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, added: "Going in to high Navy officials and attempting to blackmail them -- any man who did that would not last very long at all.

"Whether it's done in the name of equality or not, unequal treatment is unequal. That creates resentment, turbulence, and is contrary to good order in the military and absolutely not justified, not for the sake of women or any other special group."

The Navy's explanation for the way Lieutenant Hansen was treated is that the leadership wanted her to know directly that they regretted the harassment, and that the decision to end her flying career was justified.

"It's case by case," said Cmdr. Steve Pietropaoli, director of Naval information in the Pentagon. "You really don't want to leave any individual with a sense they were somehow let down by the system."

Lieutenant Hansen was sexually harassed by an instructor at the Navy's helicopter training school in Corpus Christi, Texas, in March 1992, eight months into her training. She formally complained about the incident in June 1992, at the end of her primary training course.

The instructor was issued a letter of reprimand on July 21, 1992. Ten days later, he was heard in the officers' club saying that other instructors would retaliate against Lieutenant Hansen for him.

Navy records show that Lieutenant Hansen was regarded as a marginal student almost from the beginning of her flight training in August of 1991, barely making passing grades or demonstrating required flying skills. Of 1,151 graduates of the primary flight training course, she finished 1,094th.

In June 1992, a review board was convened to judge whether she would be allowed to continue pilot training. Although doubting her ability to complete the course, the board decided to let her continue "due to the mitigating circumstances of her sexual-harassment experience and her extreme motivation," according to a Navy inspector general's report of the case.

In November 1992, she was transferred to Whiting Field, Fla. for advanced training. Her new instructors gave her a "marginally unsatisfactory" rating, and in March 1993, she faced another performance review board. Before appearing, she was asked in a written question: "Have you any complaint or criticism to make concerning your treatment or training, and/or do you have any extenuating personal problem that should be brought to the attention of the board?" Her response: "No."

The board decided that her training should be terminated. Two days later, she complained to her squadron commander that she had been a victim of retaliation for her sexual harassment complaint.

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