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Cussing like a sailor can be hazardous to career

Navy Lt. Bryan D. Black, a U.S. Naval Academy faculty member, thought he was just shooting the breeze when he told a midshipman that getting on a battleship turned him on.

Such was the sentiment, at least, though the language was saltier than the Chesapeake Bay, where an inspired Black was serving as safety officer on an oceanographic cruise aboard a "yard patrol craft." Unfortunately for Black, among the midshipmen was at least one sensitive woman. He also made some other equally spicy comments about his ex-wife, of whom he apparently is no longer fond, that were overheard by, but not spoken in front of, female midshipmen.

Now he faces a special court-martial and three criminal charges.

I can't write what Black specifically said, but suffice it to say I've heard worse walking the half-block from my office to Groucho's Deli without need of smelling salts.

Not so for Samantha Foxton, apparently, who complained that Black's remarks bothered her. He apologized. At that point, Black thought the matter had been put to rest, as did the first investigating officer, who recommended that Black receive a letter of reprimand and counseling.

That sounds reasonable, but these are not reasonable times. Once Foxton's female superior, Lt. Cmdr. Michelle Whisenhunt, caught wind of Black's rich commentary on the seductive powers of seafaring vessels, the freefall began. Whisenhunt conducted her own investigation, interviewing only women, and now Black is charged with (1) failure to obey a lawful general order or regulation; (2) conduct unbecoming an officer; and (3) indecent language.

His court-martial is unusual even by today's strict sexual harassment standards, according to Black's attorney, Charles Gittins, who says Black is being sacrificed on the altar of victim advocacy to appease critics still complaining about previous service academy scandals. Other recent trends and events also have conspired to make Black's timing as unfortunate as his vocabulary. Perfect storms sink more than ships.

Black's case surfaced last fall at the same time that U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a member of the Naval Academy's Board of Visitors, was asking academy leaders why sexual harassment persists after years of studies, surveys, investigations and recommendations. (Hint: Years of studies, surveys, investigations and recommendations that pose women as victims and men as abusers? Just a thought.)

Under such pressures, Naval Academy superintendent Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt has announced a zero-tolerance campaign against sexual harassment. Last week, Rempt urged midshipmen and staff to attend for the third consecutive year a production of "Sex Signals," an adults-only play, ironically billed as realistically graphic, about how mixed signals between men and women can cause misunderstandings.

Let's see: Salty language in real life bad; salty language in play depicting real life good. No wonder sailors sometimes get confused.

Meanwhile, didn't playwright David Mamet already cover that in "Oleanna"? Of course Mamet's play brilliantly shows how words can be twisted out of context to suggest sexual harassment where there is none. The service academies probably will invite that production to campus about the time Donald Rumsfeld gets his ear pierced.

Despite ongoing concerns about sexual harassment, complaints are, in fact, down, according to recent surveys, including one published, but not highlighted, by the Department of Defense (Service Academy 2005 Sexual Harassment and Assault Survey). Moreover, a 2004 report by the Defense Department Inspector General found that fraudulent complaints are considered a problem by 73 percent of academy women and 72 percent of men.

This is not necessarily good news if you're in the business of victim advocacy - and it is a business, perhaps soon to become a career choice. if Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., has her way. Slaughter is the sponsor of a 95-page bill that would create a Pentagon Office of Victim Advocacy (OVA). We may never win the war on terror, but by golly we'll win the war on hurt feelings.

Slaughter's bill has met with little success thus far, but the Pentagon is working on the idea. Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, reports that the Pentagon contracted with the Wellesley College Centers for Women to study the idea of an OVA and make recommendations. Wellesley has submitted a report for which it was paid $50,000, but the Pentagon has not released it.

Meanwhile, we'll have to wait until Jan. 30, the court-martial date, to learn what really happened as Black waxed poetic last fall, because Foxton and Whisenhunt have declined to be deposed under oath. Why? Because they "just don't wanna," says attorney Gittins.

Those who lament that boys will be boys will have to concede that sometimes, girls will be girls.

Kathleen Parker, an Orlando Sentinel columnist, welcomes comments via e-mail at kparker@kparker.com. Her column appears on Friday.