A panel’s recommendation that the Army, Navy and Air Force separate men and women during much of their training faced pointed criticism Tuesday from some members of Congress and others who said it would undercut the role of women in the military.
The swift reaction to the recommendations of the panel, which Defense Secretary William S. Cohen appointed last June after several sexual assault and harassment scandals in the military, underscored the emotional and political sensitivities of the issue and set the stage for a renewed debate over women in the armed services.
“I think it sends the wrong message about the direction we need to take in the military,” said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, who strongly supports integrated training. “Why create this separateness, this barrier, almost from the outset?”
Disclosing a series of recommendations at the Defense Department on Tuesday, the panel’s members, led by Nancy Kassebaum Baker, former GOP senator from Kansas, said recent efforts to bring the sexes together in basic training and boot camps have created problems. While the panel strongly endorsed integrated training, it recommended that men and women live in separate barracks and otherwise be kept apart at the most basic levels.
Cohen praised the panel’s members, saying their recommendations are not meant to roll back the advances of women but rather are “designed to make our military the most effective in the world.”
He sidestepped an endorsement, however, when specifically asked if he supports the panel’s recommendations. He called it a “good report” and said he would ask leaders of each of the armed services to review the recommendations over the next three months before coming to his own conclusions.
“I am neutral and open, as I have indicated before, to all constructive recommendations, and this is part of the process,” Cohen said.
In his news conference at the State Department, President Clinton said he would be “very reluctant” to accept any recommendations that might reduce opportunities for women in the military. But he added that the Pentagon should consider any suggestions for improving the training or housing of recruits.
“I think within those limits that ought to be largely a decision left to our military commanders upon serious review of the report,” Clinton said.
The panel’s recommendations would make the Army, the Navy and the Air Force more like the Marine Corps, which has resisted integrating men and women in basic training. The panel concluded that training at the core level - the platoon in the Army, the division in the Navy or the flight in the Air Force - was being disrupted by the logistical difficulties of having men and women working together and sharing the same barracks.
Even by separating the sexes at the basic level, the panel said there would still be considerable integrated training in the field and in classrooms. The panel also called for an increase in recruiters and supervisors who are women and tougher physical requirements for both male and female recruits.
“This isn’t a step back,” Kassebaum Baker said Tuesday. “We regard it as a step forward in strengthening the services.”
That view was not shared by the most outspoken supporters of women’s role in the military. Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a Westchester (N.Y.) Democrat, said separating the sexes from even some types of training would “diminish the opportunities for women” in the military.
By contrast, the panel’s recommendations received a warm welcome from conservative groups, which have long opposed efforts to integrate women more fully in training and in combat.
The Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, said in a statement that the report “exposes the abuse of the military that has been imposed by the political correctness forces” in the Clinton administration. Elaine Donnelly, the president of the Center for Military Readiness, one of the most outspoken groups opposed to an expanded role for women in the military, called the recommendations “a modest step in the right direction.”
It is not yet clear whether the services will embrace all or some of the panel’s recommendations once they complete their own reviews. But the sweep of its conclusions, officials said, appeared to surprise some commanders, many of whom have strongly supported efforts to integrate women as much as possible into training.
Evelyn P. Foote, a retired Army brigadier general who earlier this year served on a separate panel looking into sexual harassment, said she strongly disagreed with separating men and women during training. “Whether it’s marching, drilling, firing the M-16, whatever, it should be done together because it builds a sense of unity,” she said.
Foote, who served for more than 30 years in the military, said the recommendations would revive debates that she felt were over. “I feel like I’m back in the early ‘60s,” she said. “It’s going backwards.”