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Women veterans decry 1979 Webb article: The Naval Academy graduates said Webb's views on women in the military fostered hostile attitudes toward them.
[September 14, 2006]

Women veterans decry 1979 Webb article: The Naval Academy graduates said Webb's views on women in the military fostered hostile attitudes toward them.

(Roanoke Times, The (Roanoke, VA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Sep. 14--RICHMOND -- Five female graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy said Wednesday that Democratic Senate candidate James Webb legitimized a hostile climate at the institution by writing a 1979 magazine article arguing that women were unfit for combat.

In a press conference arranged by the campaign of Republican incumbent George Allen, the five women and one male Navy graduate chastised Webb for writing an article for The Washingtonian magazine titled "Women Can't Fight." The article was published just three years after women were first admitted to the Naval Academy, Webb's alma mater.

"There is a place for women in our military, but not in combat," Webb wrote. "And their presence at institutions dedicated to the preparation of men for combat command is poisoning that preparation."

Kathleen Murray of Norfolk, a 1984 Naval Academy graduate, said she initiated efforts to get women who had graduated from the academy to speak out against Webb, saying the Democrat "is especially undeserving of the vote of the woman veteran and those women who are serving honorably on active duty today, many in combat leadership positions."

"There is no question that James Webb's attitudes and philosophy were major factors behind the unnecessary abuse and hazing received by me and my fellow women midshipmen," said Murray, who served 20 years in the Navy. "This article was brandished repeatedly by our male upperclassmen. They quoted it and they used it as an excuse to mistreat us, in spite of official Naval Academy policy."

The press conference was staged in a downtown Richmond hotel. Poster-sized excerpts from "Women Can't Fight" and other Webb writings hung on a black curtain behind the platform. A video crew from Allen's campaign filmed the event, but Allen's campaign manager said he did not know whether the footage will be used in television ads.

In the article, Webb used graphic imagery from his own experience as a Marine platoon commander in Vietnam as part of his argument for all-male military academies and combat units. He defended the physical punishment he endured during his plebe year in Annapolis and lamented the "refinement" that occurred after women gained admission to the academy.

He wrote that he had never met a woman "whom I would trust to provide those men with combat leadership."

Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary, issued a statement Wednesday declaring himself "completely comfortable with the roles of women in today's military." He said he wrote the article "during a time of great emotional debate over a wide array of social issues in this country."

"I did not anticipate the widespread reaction to this magazine article, and to the extent that my writing subjected women at the academy or the active Armed Forces to undue hardship, I remain profoundly sorry," Webb said in a written statement.

Webb said issues raised in the article were discussed during his 1984 and 1987 Senate confirmation hearings for defense-related positions in President Ronald Reagan's administration. Webb said he strengthened policies against sexual harassment while serving as Reagan's Navy secretary and tripled the number of operational assignments available to women.

Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams said Webb seemed to stop short of disavowing the controversial article.

"It sounds like he's standing by what he wrote," Wadhams said.

This is not the first time Webb's views on women in combat have been raised during the campaign. Retired Army Gen. Claudia Kennedy endorsed Webb's Democratic primary opponent, Harris Miller, after raising concerns about Webb's attitudes toward women in the military.

The assertions Webb made in the 1979 article remain relevant to the Navy graduates at Wednesday's press conference.

"I was devastated to be told by a war hero that the academy should be shut down rather than accept me, and that my very presence was responsible for the degradation of the military," said Jennifer Brooks of Springfield, who was in her second year at the academy when Webb's article was published.

"It was unbelievably demoralizing to be painted as a pampered slut who was taking up classroom space and predestined to endanger the lives of the brave young men around her," Brooks said.

Lisa Ponstenriender, a 1982 academy graduate who lives in California, said Webb apologized "in a roundabout way" during a phone conversation Tuesday night. Ponstenriender said she was a student in Webb's English class during her plebe year at the academy. She was on the East Coast to participate in activities marking the 30th anniversary of the academy's admission of women.

"I did have a sense that he felt like he may have overreacted in the article," said Ponstenriender.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Roanoke Times, Va.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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