Boys And Girls Apart
A debate brews after a study urges the military to separate the sexes during basic training
By Mark Thompson/TIME
Esprit de corps is a crucial factor in the military. But sometimes the spirit can get a little carried away. For a long time, at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, when night fell and the sergeant was away, the soldier boys and soldier girls did play. And if the sergeant showed up, he was often greeted by a loud "Hello!" The greeting, uttered heartily by recruits standing watch on each floor of the three-story brick barracks, was not quite military protocol. Rather, it was a warning to those engaged in hanky-panky to end their trysts and jump back into their own bunks. "Males are going down to females' rooms and they're linking up," Sergeant First Class Robert Swindells, a 15-year veteran, complained last summer about his teenage recruits. "Then they're going down into empty rooms and doing whatever they want, and there's nothing we can do about it."
The behavior so shocked members of an independent panel that visited the Missouri base in September that they immediately urged that men and women quickly be moved to different floors. The panel, headed by former Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker, went on to visit 16 other bases and interview some 1,000 recruits and 500 instructors. What they found only confirmed their initial alarm. Last week the panel issued a report recommending that the military end mixed-gender barracks altogether. Furthermore, the study raised as its ideal the policy to which the Marines have adhered all along: single-sex basic training ("boot camp"), segregated barracks and tougher physical training. The report was immediately assailed not only by feminists but by military insiders. Coed training at all levels has been the rule in the Army for the last three years, in the Navy since 1992 and in the Air Force since 1977. Nearly 14% of the nation's 1.4 million soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are female.
Even before the panel arrived to inspect Fort Leonard Wood last September, the Army had tried to control the raging hormones of the teenagers it recruited into basic training. Male and female recruits were moved into adjoining rooms housing up to eight soldiers, all the same sex. The Army also removed all of the bedroom doors to allow sergeants to monitor activities more closely. But with the recruits' doors gone, lights-out in barracks also meant lights-out in the halls if the recruits were to get any sleep. The increased darkness, however, only allowed for more sexual misbehavior. "It hurts morale," a male recruit said privately, "when you've got boyfriends and girlfriends, and not just soldiers, sprinkled around the unit."
In a recent Army report, investigators found a "high frequency" of sexual relations between male and female recruits at bases across the country. Another study, which surveyed unmarried female Army recruits at Fort Jackson, S.C., reported the "loneliness and isolation" of basic training pushes some into sexual relations with their male colleagues. It is, however, also a continuation of normal civilian behavior. The female recruits were sexually active in the first place: nearly 90% said they had engaged in sexual intercourse with an average of three partners before enlisting.
But what about supervision? The service is so afraid of drill sergeants engaging in sexual improprieties with recruits that the sergeants essentially are under orders to stay away from mixed-gender barracks at night. That, said an Army inspector general's report, opens "a potential window for trainee-trainee sexual misconduct." Indeed, until now the Army's preoccupation had been the behavior of its sergeants, to the point where local commanders at Fort Leonard Wood had ordered the doors to sergeants' offices taken down as well. When the sergeants complained, the doors were put back. But the doorknobs were left off, leaving two-inch-wide peepholes so the doors could not be locked -- and making it easier to keep tabs on the goings-on behind closed doors.
The independent panel on coed training in the military had been appointed in June by Defense Secretary William Cohen because of the 1996 sex scandal at Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground, where drill sergeants preyed on young recruits. The panel's members -- six women and five men -- included retired military officers, lawyers, academics and a former journalist. What surprised many Pentagon officials was that the resulting report seemed to focus as much on sex between recruits as it did on sergeant-trainee abuse.
Among many recommendations, the panel concluded that separating the men from the women by floor within the same barracks isn't good enough. The sexes should be in different buildings so that soldiers cruising for sex among compatriots of the opposite gender can be spotted immediately. Segregated living, the report said, should continue into advanced training, which can last up to a year. The smallest units in basic training, consisting of about 60 recruits, should be all men or all women to eliminate sexual distractions and to build true esprit de corps. Most field exercises and classroom instruction -- a total of about 60% of all activity -- would remain coed.
Leaders of the military services have 90 days to respond to the panel's recommendations. Nevertheless, Cohen had already made it clear that he opposes separating men and women during basic training. "We're going to train together," he said flatly in September, "because we're going to fight together." Others have already attacked the findings. "You have to start the unit cohesion and the bonding at the beginning," says Army Major Mary Finch, a West Point graduate and helicopter pilot. Senator Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican who serves on the Armed Services Committee, calls the report "a disturbing step backwards." Karen Johnson, a retired Air Force officer who is now a vice president of the National Organization for Women, said that "creating a two-tiered training system will focus on the symptom rather than the underlying problem -- a military culture that values women less than men. If men and women do not train together from the beginning, how will they learn to respect each other as equals?"
Baker defends her panel's report. "We shouldn't get sidetracked into thinking we were asked to play Dr. Ruth," Baker said. "We were asked to look at what could enhance our military and provide the young men and women [with] the training they deserve." She insists that the panel wants to continue integrating women more deeply into the armed forces. However, she argues, current policies have only the appearance of integration while sowing discord and anxiety in the ranks, a condition that hampers female advancement.
In 1998 Congress will have its own commission to study the issue. Pentagon officials already are concerned that if the military rejects the Baker panel's suggestions, conservatives on Capitol Hill will use the study as a lever to push for legislation banning mixed-gender basic training altogether. In what may be an analogous situation, the Administration lost control of a military issue when its unilateral effort to allow openly gay men and women to serve in uniform created a fire storm of opposition in Congress. The result, on that occasion, was a law barring active homosexuals from serving in the military. What had once been a presidential prerogative -- requiring only the Commander in Chief's decision -- had become the law of the land, virtually impervious to change. Another wave of moral outrage could end up separating the young men and women of boot camp.
In TIME This Week:
Cover Date: Dec. 29, 1997
Copyright © 1997 AllPolitics All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this information is provided to you.