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.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.

"That's when they make clear to people that this behavior has got to stop because if you engage in it, you're going to get in trouble," Besikof said. "Until the message gets to the very lowest level in very real, concrete terms like punishment, I don't think women feel any safer."

In addition, the sisters' story underscores a reality that the military's own surveys make clear: Sexual harassment is pervasive in the Army, and cases like the Klemms' are by no means isolated instances. They occur throughout the service on almost any given day and at many levels.

Reflecting on the harassment scandals unfolding at Aberdeen and Ft. Leonard Wood, Pamela remarked: "That is so typical. Are they surprised? I'm not at all."

While attending boot camp at Ft. Jackson, S.C., Pamela says, she knew of two women who were sleeping with her drill sergeant. Of the seven or eight drill sergeants she came to know in her role as a squad leader, Pamela says she heard credible stories--in some cases boasts by the men themselves--that at least four were sleeping with recruits.

When eight recruits, including the Klemm sisters, told their company commander that drill sergeants were sleeping with recruits, the officer--a woman--did nothing, Pamela says. That was the first of many such responses Pamela says she received when she brought sexual harassment to the attention of her superiors.

Today, Pamela is 27 and provides round-the-clock care to an elderly woman in her home state of Washington. Her sense of adventure remains intact; she hopes to join an older friend in establishing a home for street children in the Philippines. She speaks calmly--but often with disbelief--of the events she and her sister say have scarred them so profoundly.

When Pamela was in her late teens, she and Jennifer were hired as part of a construction crew of more than 600 men--and fewer than a dozen women--working to shut down several oil refineries in northwestern Washington. Based in part on that experience, Pamela joined the Army, confident that she could live and perform well in a world dominated by men. At 5 feet 9, she was strong and willing to work twice as hard to prove herself.

After her construction crew days, Pamela felt prepared for whatever the Army might dish out.

She wasn't.

There were repeated sexual propositions. There was a relentless stream of lewd stories, gestures and suggestions. And there was more. Pamela says she and her sister were menaced by the male supervisors they spurned.

In the presence of other sergeants, she says, her supervisors and fellow soldiers regularly reached between her legs and across her breasts for equipment, mimicked sex acts when she bent over, bantered openly about their sexual prowess. One sergeant with a reputation for violence against female subordinates looked up the sisters' telephone number in the dining facility's records and called their barracks phone over and over again.

When they complained, inching up the chain of command in an effort to find someone who would intervene, the sisters say, they were threatened and intimidated by fellow soldiers and supervisors. One brandished a knife and screamed in Pamela's face. Others whispered of beatings and threatened to come to their barracks room, which had no working lock.

By August 1993, Pamela says, the two women were overwhelmed by the relentless harassment, the seeming indifference of superiors and the frightening sense that there was no escape--from their tormentors and from an indifferent Army. They were on the verge of taking desperate acts.

"I told Jenny, 'We've got to get out of here.' But we couldn't. We were stuck," Pamela said. "We could not see the end. Nothing was lightening up, nothing was changing. We were at our wits' end, and we needed relief. We had to have a time out from it. We were so emotionally overwhelmed."

The two women first went AWOL--absent without leave--and returned home to Washington. After several weeks, with the support of an Army chaplain at Ft. Hood, they returned to their post and turned themselves in.

(As the Army investigates harassment allegations at the Aberdeen base, it is deliberately seeking out soldiers who went AWOL to determine if any did so as a result of harassment.)

When the Klemms returned, the harassment and retaliation continued, compounded by administrative punishment for their unauthorized absence. Soldiers from other units across the base heard the story. Some hissed behind their backs, "That's them--the witch-hunt sisters." Pamela says she and her sister were threatened and ostracized. They felt more trapped than ever within a system that seemed incapable of halting the harassment.

Finally, they felt they could endure no more. They drove to the base hospital's emergency room, hoping a doctor could provide them a way out of their nightmare.

"This was months and months and months of building up. We were utterly in despair, despondent, depressed," Pamela said. "All we wanted was to stop what was going on."

Two months later, the Army provided a more drastic solution. They were out of the service, classified as "unable to adjust to military life." There was no discussion of the circumstances to which they were unable to adapt.

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In 1993, after the Klemms were released from the Army, the service drafted new regulations outlining with far greater specificity how commanders are to investigate harassment complaints and to prevent retaliation against complainants. In the summer of 1994, a group of female senators, joined by the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, cited the Army's new regulations as a model and required other military branches to adopt similar policies.

That, in the view of Army officers and experts, was the first boot to drop. Now, in response to the cases at Aberdeen and Ft. Leonard Wood and the prospect that more such cases will come to light, the other boot has fallen.

"It's doing the right thing and being very aggressive about it, including suffering embarrassment in the process. No one likes to see his service besmirched, his uniform tarnished. But that's a necessary part of the healing process," said one military officer familiar with the Army's deliberations.

At Ft. Hood, the new commanding general has published a letter in the base newspaper calling sexual harassment "a cancer that gnaws at the core of a unit's morale."

Lt. Gen. Thomas Schwartz, who assumed control of the base in January, reminded officers they must "act expeditiously and appropriately when allegations of improper conduct arise," and ordered a prompt review of training programs dealing with the issue.

"Zero tolerance is what he expects everyone--from top to bottom--to enforce," said Schoel, the base spokesman.

"We don't think we're ever going to totally and completely stamp it out, but we've got to do everything we can to attempt to achieve that."

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Uniform Standards Conflicting definitions and reporting standards make it difficult for the U.S. military to get an accurate picture of sexual harassment. But that may soon change.

Defense Secretary William J. Perry has told the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force to find the money needed to come up with a uniform system of collecting and cataloging data in the wake of recent sex scandals at Army installations. (In 1989, Congress ordered standardized reporting, but no funding was provided.)

Uniform reports, proponents argue, would provide a clearer picture of the extent of sexual harassment in the military as well as the types of sexual harassment.

"At least, if we had intergovernmental statistics we would be able to find out whether we have a problem, what the problem looks like and how we might solve it," says Madeline Morris, a Duke University law professor and expert on military crime, who says she spent years on a statistical analysis of serious, violent crime in the military--rather than days--because a uniform system was not in place.

Source: The Baltimore Sun

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