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Military women do not benefit from mixed-gender duty


Can a Catholic feminist support Lt. Ryan Berry’s request to be removed from midnight silo duty when his assigned co-worker happens to be a woman? As a feminist and a former active-duty Army chaplain, I am compelled to lend unequivocal support to Berry’s refusal to work in isolated conditions with one person of the opposite sex.

Lt. Ryan Berry is a 20-something conservative Catholic who values his monogamous relationship with his wife at a time when the media touts his generation as a bed-hopping, callously self-interested group. Short of an occasion that could lapse into sin, what are the practical reasons for Berry’s commonsensical refusal to bunk alone with a woman?

Three good ones:

  • The occasion of improper perception. Any wise professional will scrupulously avoid inappropriately close contact with members of the opposite sex. Rumors and perceptions can be just as destructive to one’s professional image as to one’s private relationships. No smart female executive would share a hotel room with her male co-worker or boss; yet we think it reasonable that military personal do just that for 48-hour stretches. Female soldiers should be smart enough to refuse to live in such close proximity to male co-workers and bosses. Their reputations are as much at risk as their supervisors. No credible soldier can afford the perception that she slept her way to the top.
  • The occasion of career-stopping false allegations. If Berry bunks alone with a woman whom he supervises, he will never be safe from an allegation of sexual harassment, sexual assault or even consensual adultery should he choose to discipline her for legitimate reasons and should his female co-worker refuse to accept his authority. The occurrence of false allegations is too commonplace. No married soldier should jeopardize his career, let alone family stability, by working in isolated living conditions with someone of the opposite sex. In every branch of service, an accusation against a male soldier is tantamount to a conviction. His career is effectively over, and he may spend time in jail for charges that cannot be proven beyond “he said/she said.“ The military expects spouses and children to make inordinate sacrifices on behalf of soldiers. But when soldiers are destroyed by false allegations, their families are not protected by the system. The family loses primary income, retirement, hospital, medical and housing benefits, not to mention the personal dignity and privacy lost when sexual allegations are investigated.
  • The occasion to squander thousands of defense dollars as a consequence of inappropriate relationships. The obtuseness of media broadcasters who belittle Berry’s fear of lapsing into a sinful relationship is stunning: “What makes you think that dirty, greasy mechanics would want to have sex? They are there to work!” The fact is the military is plagued with sexual misconduct cases that are alleged in such unromantic, unappealing circumstances every day. The fallout costs taxpayers plenty. One Fort McClellan adultery case tried by the Army resulted in conviction that cost taxpayers $40,000 -- this, despite a television broadcaster’s observation there was “no evidence to convict” the man. That was just the price for litigation. We seldom factor the price for family counseling, psychiatric hospitalizations after suicide attempts, treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, time spent handling divorce proceedings for the two couples compromised by the lapse. Not to mention moving costs for discharged soldiers, and the $40,000 to $100,000 to train the discharged or jailed soldier’s replacement. When a soldier commits suicide (the most common behavior of male soldiers who experience relationship loss after infidelity), taxpayers wind up paying lifetime benefits to survivors. Then we must pay a full complement of benefits for the new soldier replacement.

The vast majority of American women do not benefit from some of the military’s mixed-gender assignment policies. Women soldiers do not benefit from being bunked with their male bosses and co-workers. Women spouses and children do not benefit from the occasions of sin and false accusations that inevitably arise out of prolonged intimate contact with the opposite gender. Women taxpayers get no return from their investment in the perpetuation of these policies.

There is no other industry in America where men are required to live in situations that are as professionally and personally compromising as those imposed on military service members today. There is no other industry that will pick up the tab for the psychological and social consequences of stupid policy without exhaustive attention to risk management and prevention of negative outcomes. Yet, the American taxpayer foolishly wastes billions of dollars each year in health care, social work, litigation, wasted leadership time and destroyed careers trying to make policies work that will simply never be free of economic, social and psychological consequences.

If we paid closer attention to the real cost of misguided mixed-gender bunking policies, we would see the problem clearly for what it is: a thoughtless evil lurking inside missile silos and the small tactical vehicles sported by mixed-gender dyads in the mixed-gender military.

Marie deYoung is the director of the Center for Women in Church and Society at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. She is author of This Woman’s Army: The Dynamics of Sex and Violence in the Military and “Sexuality: Histories, Behaviors and Lifestyles that Impact on Military Readiness,” in Women in the Military.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999