Taking Aim at G.I. Jane

Taking Aim at G.I. Jane

When assistant secretary of the Army Sara Lister called the Marines "extremists" at an academic conference last October, no one might have noticed--if it had not been for Elaine Donnelly, the founder and president of the Center for Military Readiness (CMR). Donnelly--after being tipped off by one of Lister's fellow conference panelists, National Review's Washington editor Kate O'Beirne--faxed the comment to Washington Times correspondent Rowan Scarborough, who published it. Then, says Donnelly demurely, "I watched in amazement with everyone else as Congress proceeded to demand [Lister's] resignation," which came the next day.

Donnelly's surprise belies her many victories on the front lines of the military's gender wars. She and her conservative lobby have fought to keep women out of combat aircraft, ships and ground units, lest they endanger male morale, military performance and their own safety. In battle, Donnelly argues, a woman "doesn't have an equal opportunity to survive."

In June 1994, Donnelly obtained--from a source she declines to disclose--an internal memo by then-Army Secretary Togo West that proposed letting women crew long-range rocket launchers and fly air cavalry and special operations helicopters. That morsel went to Otto Kreisher at Copley News. The subsequent uproar from senior officers soon quashed the plan.

The CMR amounts to one woman with a fax, a Rolodex and a cause. A full-time advocate, Donnelly, 51, works out of an office in her home in Livonia, Mich., outside of Detroit. When prodded, Donnelly admits the only other staffer is "my husband, [who] does all the administrative work."

If a good Rolodex is the coin of the lobbying realm, Donnelly's contacts are gold, as even her foes will grudgingly admit. "Elaine Donnelly has really got the old retired admiral corps going," says Susan Barnes, the founder of Women Active in Our Nation's Defense, Their Advocates and Supporters (WANDAS), a group that has crossed swords with Donnelly. WANDAS gives legal support and other advice to women facing harassment and discrimination in the military.

Donnelly isn't shy about acknowledging that a network of "retired three- and four-star generals and admirals . . . review just about everything I write." And indeed, she has more than admirals behind her: Two former Marine Corps commandants (along with four retired Navy leaders) signed a recent Donnelly fund-raising appeal.

The land forces, too, have been supportive. "We gave her $25,000 over four, five, six years," says John Grady, press officer at the Association of the United States Army. AUSA's membership includes 75,000 active-duty officers; its conferences and publications provide a forum for the Army secretary and the most senior generals. And powerful military lobbies, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the Retired Officers Association, have subsidized specific CMR events. The sums may be small--under $1,000 in the VFW's case--but it's the names, not the figures on the checks, that matter most.

Donnelly doesn't come from a military background. She entered politics in the late '70s to fight the Equal Rights Amendment--which she feared would subject her daughters to the draft--and worked for the anti-ERA Eagle Forum and its leader Phyllis Schlafly. After a stint as a Reagan-Bush campaign organizer, she was named to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) in 1984.

DACOWITS marked the start of her activism on military matters. A 1992 appointment to President Bush's commission on women in the military further raised her profile as a conservative activist.

In early 1995, Donnelly obtained portions of the private training records of the first two women to fly the Navy's "top gun" fighter, the notoriously temperamental F-14. One of the women, Lt. Kara Hultgreen, had already died in a crash. One of the women's flight instructors, Lt. Patrick Jerry Burns, then leaked Donnelly records that he said showed that the surviving woman, Lt. Carey Lohrenz, was a second accident waiting to happen--an unqualified aviator moved along simply to fill a gender quota. Donnelly took the documents to then-vice chief of naval operations Adm. Stanley Arthur. Rather than ground Lohrenz, Arthur (now retired) says he warned Donnelly, "You're being funneled some very tailored information ... " and "Whoever is involved in providing this information to you is involved in illegal activity."

Donnelly decided to go public with the information. She referred to Lohrenz simply as "Pilot B," but identified her as a female F-14 pilot when there was only one. A month later, Lohrenz was grounded. Although she was later given a restricted flight status, the lieutenant probably won't ever fly jets again.

This time, Donnelly's moves sparked retaliatory fire. Her actions were scrutinized in an NBC Dateline piece on Lohrenz. A source familiar with the television news investigation says the segment started out being sympathetic toward Donnelly, but ended up lauding the young lieutenant at Donnelly's expense. And in a libel case moving toward trial, Lohrenz charges that Donnelly undermined her reputation, her confidence and her career by making it so obvious that Lohrenz was the subject of her report that other naval aviators started calling her "Pilot B."

Lohrenz's lawyer in that case and in a parallel suit against the Navy is WANDAS's Barnes, who blames her client's misfortunes on a "conspiracy," with Donnelly acting as "a fig leaf for the retired officers who want to keep the military `the way we were.' " In an affidavit filed in Lohrenz's suit against the Navy, Barnes names six naval officers, including an admiral, as the masterminds behind Burns's leaking of Lohrenz's records. And she names a commander as the true author of Donnelly's 1995 report on "Pilot B."

While other well-informed sources support her allegations, Barnes refused to elaborate in an interview: "All I can tell you is that I've had experts look at" Donnelly's paper on Lohrenz, which is highly technical, and "there is simply no way she could have written that report." (Donnelly calls Barnes's conspiracy theory "one of the most absurd things I've read since I heard about the Hale-Bopp comet. Are they smoking funny cigarettes?")

The flight instructor, Burns, is equally dismissive of Barnes's affidavit, which he calls "bizarre at best." He insists he leaked the records on his own, though he says there were other officers who felt solidarity.

"I don't think that's a conspiracy, for a number of people to look at the same set of facts and come to the same conclusion. ... That's reality," he said.

Conspiracy or not, Donnelly has definitely tapped a deep well of discontent. Beneath their ingrained reluctance to criticize the chain of command, many in the military have little faith in civilian superiors such as Togo West, Sara Lister or President Clinton himself--as demonstrated by their violent reaction to West's memo, Lister's "extremists" remark and Clinton's ill-fated 1993 proposal to tolerate homosexuality in the ranks.

It is a culture gap both sides have failed to bridge. And Lister's comments only widened the divide. "The Marines are extremists," she said in her remarks at the October conference. "Wherever you have extremists, you've got some risks of disconnection with society. And that's a little dangerous. ... The Marine Corps is--you know--they have all these checkerboard fancy uniforms and stuff."

Military discontent is perhaps greatest in the elite, macho community of Navy aviators. The opening to women pilots, such as Lohrenz, came after the scandalous Tailhook convention of 1991, when Navy aviators were accused of groping and mistreating Navy and civilian women. The lawyer now representing Burns in the Navy's internal discipline process, Robert Rae, is a veteran of the Tailhook defense who refers to certain senior Navy leaders as "lying sacks of shit." Burns calls "the post-Tailhook environment . . . almost a kind of McCarthy environment" and still feels "bitterness" that his then-squadron commander was sacked in a Tailhook aftershock.

It was Tailhook, too, that first stirred Barnes to action, but for very different reasons. "I was just sort of outraged" by the reports of sexual misconduct, and "my Congresswoman [then-Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo.] seemed to be the only person speaking up for the women," she recalled in an interview recently. So Barnes went to Schroeder and offered to join any group aiding them. When she learned there wasn't one, she founded an organization herself. Barnes continues to run a civil law practice in Denver and must cram in WANDAS work pro bono in her spare time.

The workload for WANDAS gets heavier by the day. Besides Lohrenz, Barnes is representing Sgt. Maj. Brenda Hoster, the first woman to publicly accuse then-Sergeant Major of the Army Gene McKinney, who was recently tried for sexual harassment. "I would love to just be able to do this on a professional basis full-time," she sighs, "but I don't make any money off of it."

Donnelly says she is also hobbled financially from the costs of defending herself in the Lohrenz case. Otherwise, she says, "we would have an office in Washington by now." Even so, Donnelly is taking steps to beef up her presence in the nation's capital while she toils in Livonia: She came to Washington on a recent weekend to interview candidates for the job of permanent Washington representative.

NEXT STORY: Satellite Privatization Opposed

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