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Army's Top Woman Quits Position Under Heavy Fire

Military: Personnel chief couldn't deflect critical blasts after she labeled Marine Corps 'extremist.' GOP kept up attack despite her apology.

November 15, 1997|SAM FULWOOD III and PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — A day after apologizing to the Marine Corps for branding it as an "extremist organization," the Army's personnel chief resigned Friday in an effort to extinguish a firestorm of criticism.

Sara E. Lister, the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, submitted a letter of resignation to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, who immediately accepted it, according to Pentagon officials.

Lister had been scheduled to retire Nov. 21, but her abrupt resignation brought an unexpected end to the career of the Army's highest-ranking woman and one of the most influential civilians in that branch of the armed services. Officials offered no details on her resignation, including whether her early departure would affect her benefits or whether Cohen had asked for her resignation.

"You can say she was basically forced out a week early in a display of the military's deep unhappiness with her comments," one senior Army officer said.

The controversy erupted after publication of comments she made at an Oct. 26 seminar in Baltimore.

"I think the Army is much more connected to society than the Marines," she said, speaking of relations between the armed forces and the civilian world. "The Marines are extremists. Whenever you have extremists, you have some risks of total disconnection with society. And that's a little dangerous."

Faced with mounting criticism and calls for her firing, Cohen attempted to put the issue behind Lister by embracing her apology and sternly rebuking her.

"We live in a world where people make mistakes and they apologize for the mistakes and move on," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Thursday, describing Cohen's view at that time regarding Lister's comments.

He added: "I think he's satisfied that this has been handled in the proper way with a formal apology. I think this issue is over."

But Republican lawmakers were not appeased and continued to demand her firing. On Thursday, after several GOP House members lambasted the Clinton administration for tolerating anti-military views, the GOP-led House passed a nonbinding resolution urging the administration to fire Lister.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) also sent President Clinton a letter demanding Lister's ouster. Describing her remarks as "completely out of order" and insulting to all military personnel, Gingrich wrote: "Nothing less than her dismissal and a full apology on your part to America's sons and daughters in uniform will suffice to repair this breach."

Clinton, who did not serve in the military, has suffered in his dealings with the armed forces since the beginning of his first term.

On Friday, Cohen told reporters at the Pentagon: "Her resignation was submitted, accepted, and I think the matter is over."

In a statement released Friday, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, a retired Army officer, praised Lister's resignation as "a swift and decisive tactical retreat that was clearly the only logical course of action."

Described by one Army officer as "imperious," Lister had made many enemies at the Pentagon with her ardent support for reversing current Army and Marine Corps policies against allowing female ground troops in combat.

For example, some military leaders were offended by her role in advocating that Army Secretary Togo West Jr. adopt a bold plan to open more jobs near the front lines to women--without consulting the uniformed leaders. When Gen. Gordon Sullivan, then Army chief of staff, found out, he demanded that West rescind the order.

During the Carter administration, Lister served in a number of jobs at the Pentagon, including deputy general counsel for the Navy and general counsel for the Army. After Carter lost his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Lister returned to private sector jobs in law, business and academia.

West brought Lister back to the Pentagon in 1994 from his law firm.

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