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No Way Out : In light of recent charges, the Army has toughened its stance on sexual harassment. But for the Klemm sisters, change has come too late.

December 18, 1996|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In July 1992, when Pamela Klemm was being wooed into the Army by a persuasive recruiter, the service's top general appeared before Congress to assure lawmakers that "command policies are in place at all levels" to prohibit sexual harassment.

The Army's policy, Chief of Staff Gordon R. Sullivan stated flatly, was "zero tolerance" of harassment, and soldiers up and down the chain of command should know it. "I'm not going to tolerate it," he declared, "and I'm not going to tolerate any equivocation about it."

At sprawling Ft. Hood, Texas, Sullivan's decree was enshrined in Command Policy No. 22. In two pages of turgid military prose, it defined sexual harassment in broad but clear terms, directed commanders to respond promptly to complaints, punish offenders and prevent retaliation against those who spoke up.

But when Pvt. Pamela Klemm arrived at Ft. Hood in April 1993, the Army's zero-tolerance policy appeared to have had zero impact, at least at the lowly rank of soldiering where she found herself.

Klemm, then 24, enlisted along with her 22-year-old sister, Jennifer, and had high hopes for world travel, a college education and training for a medical career. Instead, the Klemms say, they endured five months of relentless sexual harassment from at least five male supervisors. Eventually, feeling trapped and overwhelmed, they showed up at the base hospital's emergency room complaining of severe emotional distress. Two months later, the Army sent them home, branding them "unable to adjust to military life" and barring their reenlistment.

While it is not known how many women ask to be released from the Army because of sexual harassment, the service annually dismisses hundreds of soldiers--both men and women--citing their inability to adjust to military life.

The sisters' ordeal clearly shows that drafting new rules and regulations--even touting them at the highest levels--is only the first step in dealing with such an entrenched problem. In a 1995 survey, 61% of Army women reported that they had been the victims of some form of sexual harassment, from teasing to fondling to rape.

As Army officials have only recently begun to acknowledge publicly, stamping out harassment is an unending job demanding top priority and constant attention at all levels.

Adopting a new policy is one thing. Ensuring that all soldiers really get it--and keep it--is quite another.

"It all looks good on paper," Pamela said. "But if the people in your unit are not following that order, what good does it do?"

It is a lesson, say many observers, that the Army is just beginning to learn as it copes with scandals at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri. At those bases, several drill sergeants and an officer face charges including obstruction of justice, sexual harassment and rape, and more charges are considered likely as the Army broadens its probe.

And it is a lesson that the Air Force, Navy and Marines also are set to learn, or perhaps relearn. Defense Secretary William J. Perry has ordered all the services to review how effectively they communicate their zero-tolerance policies through the ranks.

*

Reforms will come too late for Pamela Klemm, who looks back on her short-lived career as an Army cook with a mixture of disbelief, frustration and rage. For Pamela, her dismissal was the end of a nightmare.

It was also the end of a dream. In boot camp, both sisters were lauded as exemplary soldiers and were designated as squad leaders. During advanced individual training, Pamela graduated at the top of her class and was awarded expert status for her marksmanship with an M-16. The Army urged both women to consider its "green-to-gold" program, which puts enlistees on a track to become officers.

Pamela's account of the sisters' experience is corroborated by an Army inspector general's report that was prepared after their release from the service, and by internal Army records obtained by Pamela's lawyer through the Freedom of Information Act. Army officials declined to respond specifically to her description of events.

"What we're trying to do for the future is the most important thing," said Ft. Hood spokesman Lt. Col. Randy Schoel, who would not comment on the specifics of the Klemm sisters' case. Schoel acknowledged that instances of sexual harassment continue to occur throughout the service, and probably at Ft. Hood as well. "We can't accept that," he said.

Doris Besikof, a Denver attorney who assisted the Klemm sisters in subsequent dealings with the Army, said the current outburst of concern over sexual harassment may be teaching the Army the value of an occasional airing of dirty laundry.

"In military discipline, calling attention to a problem is not popular," Besikof said. But the Army, she said, must start to make it known when it is investigating sexual-harassment cases and what it finds--including the punishment that is meted out.

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