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Sailors Cite Punishment in Wake of Allegations

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three women sailors who filed sexual harassment complaints against supervisors at the Naval Air Station here are now saying that the Navy is punishing them for coming forward.

And a women’s rights advocate says the cases are all too typical of what happens when Navy women dare to complain about being groped, fondled or assaulted.

“It’s the crazy-lady theory,” said attorney Susan Barnes, president of an advocacy group, Women Active in Our Nation’s Defense. “If you make the allegation, you are labeled a crazy lady.”

Or, she said, “they turn things around and file charges against the woman who is making the complaint.”

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Here is what has occurred since the women sparked a criminal investigation in April into the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 9 detachment at Point Mugu:

* Sailor Kimberly Bowles accused supervisors of grabbing her buttocks and making lewd comments. None of those accused were charged with offenses, but she now faces charges of leaving base without permission, refusing to sign a report and unauthorized use of a telephone calling card.

* Sailor Jennifer Buhler complained about being groped by two supervisors, whom she said also made numerous lewd and sexually explicit comments. Neither of those men were punished for inappropriate behavior, but Buhler was discharged from the Navy after being diagnosed with a personality disorder.

* Sailor Debbie Clark also brought sexual harassment allegations against a supervisor in the squadron. Her complaint resulted in no formal charges. But tomorrow she will face a court-martial on charges of assaulting an investigating officer and leaving base without permission.

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In addition to these sailors, a fourth woman raised sexual harassment allegations against a supervisor and he has since retired without facing punishment.

But at an administrative hearing last week, the woman was found guilty of falling asleep on watch, Navy officials said. Her punishment was to be knocked down a pay grade, but the squadron suspended her sentence provided she has no other infractions in the next six months.

This unnamed woman wants to remain in the Navy and has declined to go public with her case for fear of retaliation, the three other women said.

“I know what this looks like, it looks like retribution,” said Capt. Craig Weideman, commanding officer of the squadron known as VX-9. “But it doesn’t have a damned thing to do with the sexual harassment thing. . . . They broke the law. I’m a believer in holding everybody accountable for their actions.”

Weideman said he would have pursued sexual harassment allegations if they proved to be true. But he said neither the Naval Criminal Investigative Service nor two other fact-finding teams came back to him with corroborating witnesses or other proof of harassment in his squadron.

“It was all hearsay, and it came down to who are you going to believe,” he said. He sided with the senior chiefs and petty officers who had long Navy records, rather than their young accusers, whom he described as having trouble adjusting to Navy life.

The Navy has been struggling with sexual harassment ever since the cover-up and scandal involving the sexual mauling of women by a gantlet of naval aviators at the infamous 1991 Tailhook Assn. convention.

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The Navy has a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual harassment. And Point Mugu, like other bases, holds regular workshops to make it clear what constitutes proper and improper behavior in the workplace as the Navy continues to integrate its ranks with more women.

Yet Barnes and other women’s advocates believe the message has not fully sunk in to parts of Navy culture, nor has it changed the behavior of some sailors, particularly among the enlisted ranks.

Furthermore, Barnes said she has noticed a backlash to the Tailhook investigation that ended or stalled the careers of some Navy officers.

“On the West Coast in the naval aviation community, they are punishing women for what happened in Tailhook,” Barnes said. “I cannot tell you how many times that people tell me . . . how unfair it was for all of these guys to have their promotions held up.”

Navy officials dispute this assertion.

Jennifer Buhler joined the Navy straight out of high school so she could serve her country, learn some leadership skills and earn government subsidies for a college education.

After boot camp, she was assigned to the Point Mugu detachment of VX-9, a place known for its hotshot Navy pilots. Before the Tailhook scandal broke, the squadron’s lead F-14 Tomcat fighter jet was painted jet black with a white Playboy bunny on its tail.

At first, Buhler said her supervisors seemed nice enough and she was assigned to be the secretary to a senior enlisted officer. But soon she said she discovered a locker-room mentality in the 200-member detachment, where men outnumber women about 4 to 1.

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Buhler said she received annoying phone calls from would-be suitors at 2 a.m. and other unwanted attention. “I was a virgin,” she said. “There was a bet going around the squadron who could get Buhler in bed first.”

Particularly disturbing, she said, were the comments of her supervisors.

“One of them would say, ‘You have a very nice body, you are very well endowed,’ ” she said. “Another said, ‘Will you marry me, and have my kids?’ Both of them grabbed my butt and touched me.”

Her immediate supervisor, she said, gave her lingerie as a Christmas present, with the query, “When am I going to see you in it?”

Buhler was reluctant to complain formally, but did so upon the urging of her brother-in-law, a Point Mugu counselor and legal officer.

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Unknown to her, three other women were raising similar allegations. All four were sent to naval investigators, who launched a formal inquiry.

Marilyn G. Hourican, special agent-in-charge of the local Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said her agents talked to dozens of people but had trouble finding witnesses inside the squadron to corroborate the women’s stories.

“There were more people, to be quite frank, who severely questioned the credibility of the women who came forward,” Hourican said. “It didn’t help a thing when the women would tell different people different things.”

Hourican said she believes that sexual harassment occurred “in a few cases.” But her investigators failed to muster sufficient legal evidence that would help any allegation survive a preliminary hearing.

Moreover, she said, the Navy’s internal investigators have to walk a fine line to conduct a solid investigation without going too far. “If you go over that line, people can start using the words ‘witch hunt.’ The accused have certain rights too.”

The investigation itself became entangled in controversy when two agents summoned Clark to talk about her allegations and ended up in a scuffle with her during the interview.

“They were telling me that I was crazy. They were down-talking me,” Clark said. She said she got up to leave and investigators tried to restrain her. During the row, she broke a bone in the foot of an investigator, Navy officials said, and now faces an assault charge.

Clark is also accused of eight days of unauthorized absence from base, beginning from what was supposed to be her last day of active duty. On her last day, Clark refused to sign her discharge papers, believing that they did not properly reflect her performance as a sailor.

With offices closing for the day, she decided to leave base for the weekend and to return the following Monday to challenge the documents. But she was not permitted to return on base, she said. Navy officials had scratched the Point Mugu decal from her car and issued an order barring her access to the base.

“They were embarrassed because of the harassment complaints,” said Clark, who faces up to six months in prison if convicted. “Now, they want to punish me and the other girls because we let the cat out of the bag.”

Sailor Bowles, another woman who complained of harassment, said her charges of leaving base without authorization stem from a trip she made to visit Clark’s defense attorney as a potential witness.

She also is accused of refusing to sign a report and using a co-worker’s telephone calling card number without authorization--even though she said the co-worker gave her the card number to use.

“I want out of the Navy, but they don’t want to let me out without reprimanding me first,” Bowles said. “They want to make an example out of me to intimidate other girls from coming forward.”

Until she left the Navy earlier this month, Buhler said, the pressure had become unbearable. During the investigation, she was initially left under the command of her lingerie-giving supervisor. Then she was transferred to a job as a janitor, scrubbing toilets.

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She said she was repeatedly threatened by officers in the squadron who were pressuring her to leave the Navy. Finally, she agreed to see a Navy psychiatrist, was quickly diagnosed with a personality disorder and then kicked out of the Navy with a general discharge that disqualified her for college benefits under the GI bill.

The diagnosis has been disputed by a clinical social worker, she said.

Now living with her parents in Salt Lake City, the 20-year-old said she is angry about losing her GI benefits and at how she was mistreated.

“It’s divide and conquer,” Buhler said. “We are being discredited and then kicked out of the Navy for complaining.”


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