Congress compromises on mixed-sex military training Plan would house men, women in separate barracks during training

September 26, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Congress has reached a testy compromise on whether male and female military recruits should train and be housed together, shifting the contentious issue to a federal commission that is to issue its own recommendations early next year.

The House had approved legislation calling for separate housing and training during the initial phase of military training, while a Senate-backed defense measure said no action should be taken until the commission files its final report to Congress in March.

The compromise -- passed by the House this week and expected to pass the Senate -- calls for permanent barriers between men's and women's sections of barracks and for restricting after-hours barracks access of opposite-sex drill sergeants and training personnel.

The compromise noted that only the House supports keeping the sexes apart during basic training.

"The most important area we have not prevailed on -- separate training," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican who suggested the after-hours restrictions.

"I am disappointed that several of my Senate colleagues would not support Kassebaum Baker," said Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican, referring to another commission headed by former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker that in December endorsed separating men and women during basic training and that served as the framework for the House-passed measure.

After visiting bases, the Kassebaum Baker commission found that gender-integrated housing was "contributing to a higher rate of disciplinary problems." Housing men and women in separate barracks, it said, would curb such problems.

But Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, his service chiefs, some lawmakers and retired female officers resisted the move to separate barracks and training, citing the cost and arguing that it would impede unit cohesion and be a "step backward" for military women.

Cohen has estimated it would cost $168 million to construct separate facilities. Gen. Michael E. Ryan, the Air Force's top officer, told Congress that such gender separation would be "counterproductive" to the "train-as-we-operate" philosophy.

The defense secretary also warned of a possible presidential veto of the defense bill if Congress ordered the Army, Navy and Air Force to segregate sexes during basic training. The Marines are the only service with separate boot camps for men and women.

Against this backdrop, the new 10-member commission is visiting training camps and trying to draft further recommendations on gender integration.

Since 1976, the Air Force has housed men and women in integrated barracks during basic training, while the Navy and Army have housed them together since 1992 and 1994, respectively. But not all male recruits train with women: Fifty percent of the Army's male recruits, 25 percent of the Navy's and 40 percent of the Air Force's routinely train with women in basic training.

While congressional conservatives are hopeful that the latest commission will follow the lines of the Kassebaum Baker panel, sources and some commission members say there are early signs that panel members initially opposed to gender integration are moderating their views.

"I think they're better informed than they were before," said a source familiar with the commission's work.

On a recent visit to Fort Jackson, S.C., commission members discovered that gender integration was widely supported by both male and female Army recruits, leading one member to say that he "moved somewhat" away from favoring separate male and female training.

But that member also said that "it's too premature" to predict how the commission will decide on gender-integrated training.

Pub Date: 9/26/98

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