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Forget the scandals. For these women, the Air Force offers careers they could only dream about in the civilian world. These are no . . .

November 29, 1996|SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — The woman who strides across the flight line is the picture of confidence and style. Her gait is precise, her attire, crisp--olive drab jumpsuit, the pants creased just so, red bandanna neatly wound about her neck, leather bomber jacket the color of chocolate.

Meet Capt. Cherianne Carlisle of the United States Air Force. She is one of just 316 female pilots in a corps of nearly 15,000 flyers, and she has a surprising--but not uncommon--secret to share.

The military, Carlisle confides, can be a terrific place for women to work.

Here, at this sprawling base midway between Sacramento and San Francisco, the pilot is at ease. She clambers up to the flight deck of the massive C-5 cargo jet, the largest plane in America's fleet. (Only Russia has one larger.) It is a hulking goliath--so big it can ferry eight buses through the sky.

Carlisle has piloted this and other Air Force planes around the globe more times than she can count. At 27, just 5 1/2 years out of flight school, she has visited every continent but Africa. She has as much responsibility as some commercial pilots in their 40s--and her training, worth thousands of dollars, was paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

At a time when the nation's attention is turned to horrifying allegations that Army drill sergeants have raped and sexually harassed young recruits, when many are asking just why a woman would join the armed services in the first place, Cherianne Carlisle illustrates the central paradox of military life:

The military is not an easy place for women. In a 1995 survey, the Department of Defense found that 61% of all military women had been victims of sexual harassment--from crude remarks to unwanted touching to rape--within the past year. At the same time, however, the military offers women unparalleled opportunities for advancement, responsibility and job security.

It is one of the most vocal advocates for equal opportunity in America; indeed, in the military workplace, commitment to the promotion of minorities and women is examined as part of each supervisor's formal, annual job evaluation. Here, discrimination of any sort--if it can be proved--can get you fired. (For instance, Air Force sources, speaking off the record, say they've heard rumors that a number of generals have been quietly relieved of their command due to sexual improprieties, although the stated reason was simply that their superiors had lost confidence in them.) And where else can a woman be absolutely certain that if she does the same work as a man, she will get paid the same?

"The military is a culture shock to any civilian, and then you have a double culture shock as a woman because the world and American society has always considered this man's work," says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. "But the fact of the matter is that if you survive those two shocks, then you can do much better [as a woman] than you can in other places, because the military is an equal opportunity employer."

Says Judith Stiehm, a military sociologist and author of the recent "It's Our Military Too" (Temple University Press): "A lot of military women think they would never have had the opportunities they have had, never been able to see the world or gotten the education they have [if they had worked in the private sector]. For many of them it has just been a wonderful experience."

If a recent visit to Travis Air Force Base is any guide, there are plenty of Cherianne Carlisles out there, laboring in obscurity as they quietly break gender barriers. While most military women continue to flow into traditional jobs--nursing, administrative work, public affairs--each year more and more choose careers that were once the exclusive province of men.

Among them is Lt. Col. Michelle Johnson, described as a "fast-burner" by her colleagues because she has been promoted so quickly.

Two decades ago, Johnson entered the Air Force Academy as part of the second class in which women were admitted. To the chagrin of some men, she became the academy's first female wing commander, an equivalent of the student body president. Today, at 38, she commands the 9th Air Refueling Squadron at Travis; 160 pilots report to her.

Her resume includes a Rhodes Scholarship, a return trip to the Air Force Academy to teach, and a four-year tour of duty at the White House, where she performed the ultimate guy job: she carried "the football," the ultra-secret suitcase containing codes that could initiate the launch of nuclear weapons, for Presidents Bush and Clinton.

Says the base public affairs officer: "She has 'general' written all over her."

Fast track or not, the lieutenant colonel holds few illusions about how women are perceived. "I'm no Pollyanna," she insists. Stereotypes are still at work; once, when Johnson was traveling with Clinton, a veteran wire service reporter (a woman, no less) mistook her for a nurse.

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