FT. LEE, Va. — If the Army wants to find evidence of sexual harassment, it need look no further than the Pizza Hut on Route 36, just a stoplight or two down the road from this picturesque collection of brick buildings and aging white clapboard barracks nestled along Virginia's Appomattox River.
Here, over the $4.49 pizza-and-salad buffet special, it was possible this week to strike up a noontime conversation with three veteran female sergeants. They are not foolish enough to use their real names, so they will be known as Anita, Lenore and Sarah.
Hardly a day goes by, says Anita, 40, without a man making a lewd remark or gesture. Sex between soldiers of different ranks, although prohibited, has long been a part of Army life, says Lenore, 37; when she was a new recruit, her roommate was sleeping with the drill sergeant.
But it is Sarah, 29, who has the most chilling tale: Three years ago, while her husband was overseas, she was stalked by a sergeant who repeatedly begged her to sleep with him. When she filed a formal complaint, the fallout was devastating.
"My name was just dragged through the mud," she said. She was reassigned during the investigation to a job in which the sergeant became her immediate supervisor. Eventually, she said, he was reprimanded and she switched posts. The ordeal was so stressful that, at one point, she tried to kill herself.
"I was to the point where I was crying all the time," she said. "I just wanted to make the pain stop."
If the Army's own statistics are any guide, the experiences of these three women are not unique. In a 1995 survey, about 61% of Army women reported that they had been the victims of sexual harassment--ranging from teasing to fondling to rape--during the previous year.
But these soldiers' stories--told against the backdrop of an investigation into sexual harassment of young Army recruits at training facilities--reveal more than the prevalence of sexual misconduct. They shine a harsh spotlight on a society that has a strong commitment to equal opportunity on paper but in practice remains very much dominated by men.
Twenty-three years after the military switched to an all-volunteer force and women began joining in record numbers, female soldiers constitute just 14% of the Army's rolls and 13% of its officers. The physically demanding eight-week basic-training course was integrated just two years ago, and the decision to train men and women together remains hugely controversial.
Meanwhile, the long-standing prohibition against women in combat--a rule that public opinion polls indicate the American people strongly support--means that female soldiers are barred from one-third of all Army jobs. Women can hold certain combat positions in the Navy and Air Force, and in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, they have been permitted to fly Army helicopters. But they cannot become infantry soldiers--the backbone of the Army.
That effectively caps most women's careers and keeps men in the seat of power, according to David Segal, a University of Maryland sociologist who has advised the Army on gender integration.
Just six of the Army's 307 generals are women. The two highest-ranking Army women are two-star generals. One works in intelligence, the other in personnel--both considered rear-echelon support functions for combat units.
"The people who get to be the senior generals in the Army," Segal said, "are officers who come up through infantry, armor and artillery. They are the warriors. If you say women aren't going to be warriors, then you are saying we are not going to have a woman who is chief of staff of the Army. . . . What you are doing is building a glass ceiling."
And while female soldiers may break some molds simply by joining the Army, once they are there they tend to be channeled into fields that are traditionally the province of women.
More than a third of them go into administrative jobs and about one in six enter medical occupations. A quarter become supply clerks or communications specialists. Just one in 10 joins occupations traditionally seen as men's work, such as electronics, craft work and infantry support.
Within this context, it is not surprising to experts that sexual harassment persists. Of the four branches of the military, the Army has the second-highest incidence of sexual harassment behind the Marine Corps, according to last year's survey. And Army women reported the highest incidence of superiors seeking sex in return for other favors.
"We've got a long way to go," acknowledged Ed Dorn, assistant secretary of defense for manpower. But he adds that preventing sexual harassment is particularly difficult for an organization with as much turnover as the Army.
"Every day," Dorn said, "we start over with a few hundred new people in the force. Every year we start over with 200,000 new recruits on active duty, and 150,000 into the [National] Guard and Reserve. Every year, we have hundreds of thousands of new people to give this message to."