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Under pressure, Jim Webb declines to be recognized as a distinguished Naval Academy graduate

Former senator Jim Webb of Virginia takes a tour of an Iowa wind farm in June 2015. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

Former senator Jim Webb declined Tuesday to accept an award as a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, citing pressure from a “small but vociferous group” of female alumni who are angry about past statements he made that women aren’t suited for combat and shouldn’t attend the academy.

Webb, who was a Democratic senator from Virginia from 2007 to 2013 and was secretary of the Navy from May 1986 to Feb. 1987, was expected to receive a Distinguished Graduate Award along with four other alumni Friday in a ceremony in Annapolis. The recognition is the most prestigious awarded by the Naval Academy Alumni Association and Foundation, and it goes to living alumni whose character, service and stature “draw wholesome comparison to the qualities that the U.S. Naval Academy strives for in keeping with its ideals of duty, honor, loyalty and integrity,” according to criteria published by the association.

But critics said the selection of Webb a highly decorated Marine veteran, 1968 academy graduate and recent presidential candidate was unacceptable because of his history of disrespecting women. They pointed primarily to an article published in Washingtonian magazine in 1979 in which he criticized women attending the academy and said that a dormitory there was a “horny woman’s dream.” The article, headlined “Women Can’t Fight,” was written by Webb after he left the military and while he was a popular academy professor.

Webb released a statement through the alumni association Monday night that said he was sorry for any trouble he caused. But on Tuesday evening he changed course, saying on his website that he expected more protests and does not want to be a distraction at the awards ceremony. He was nominated by classmates who graduated with him in 1968, he said.

“From conversations with the Alumni Association, including information passed down from top Navy leadership in the Pentagon, it is clear that those protesting my receipt of this award now threaten to disrupt the ceremonies surrounding its issuance,” Webb said. “I am being told that my presence at the ceremony would likely mar the otherwise celebratory nature of that special day, and as a consequence I find it necessary to decline to accept the award.”

The decision was made after several Naval Academy graduates launched a petition to the alumni association and a letter-writing campaign to overturn the selection. Some alumni said the Washingtonian article was particularly damaging when it was published because Webb was a professor and the author of the best-selling book “Fields of Fire.” Other alumni said Webb was worthy of the honor but that the association should have anticipated some backlash.

Retired Navy Capt. Wendy Lawrence, who graduated from the academy in 1981 and went on to become a helicopter pilot and astronaut, said Tuesday night that Webb made the appropriate choice in declining the award.

“Unless you were at the academy at the time, it is hard to understand how damaging this article was and how lasting the impact was,” she said. “Here it is 38 years later, and we are still talking about it.”

The announcement of the award came last week as the U.S. military struggled with a sprawling scandal in which hundreds of service members, mostly Marines, are under investigation for sharing nude photographs of their female colleagues without their permission. The Marine commandant, Gen. Robert B. Neller, and the top Navy officer, Adm. John Richardson, have promised to address the issue, but critics of Webb’s selection said the timing of the decision was tone-deaf and underscored how female service members still struggle to be respected.

In the Washingtonian article, Webb questioned the purpose of allowing women to attend the academy and said that he had never met a woman he would trust to lead others in combat.

“There is a place for women in our military, but not in combat,” he wrote. “And their presence at institutions dedicated to the preparation of men for combat command is poisoning that preparation. By attempting to sexually sterilize the Naval Academy environment in the name of equality, this country has sterilized the whole process of combat leadership training, and our military forces are doomed to suffer the consequences.”

Webb said in his earlier statement that he wrote the article “during an intense national debate regarding the issue of women serving in combat” and apologized for problems he caused.

“Back then, emotions about the Vietnam War, in which I had fought as a Marine, were spilling over on both sides of this debate,” he said. “Clearly, if I had been a more mature individual, there are things that I would not have said in that magazine article. To the extent that this article subjected women at the Academy or the armed forces to undue hardship, I remain profoundly sorry.”

But the controversy did not die down. Dozens of alumni sent letters to the alumni association, many saying that Webb had decades to fully recant his article but had not.

“I take it personally, but I also take it professionally,” said retired Navy Capt. Barb Geraghty, who was among the first class of female graduates in 1980 and opposed Webb receiving the award. “He deliberately made that a very provocative article that essentially broke the unit cohesion of a brigade of midshipmen at the Naval Academy. I have lost track of how many times men thrust that article in my face and used it as a reason for why I didn’t belong.”

Retired Adm. Robert J. Natter, the chairman of the alumni association’s board of trustees, said Tuesday night that he accepts Webb’s decision to decline the award.

“I appreciate his concern for the Naval Academy and the Alumni Association,” Natter said in a statement.

Webb said that he found it “particularly ironic” that some of the alumni criticizing him benefited from his decision as Navy secretary in 1987 to triple the amount of jobs open to women to 15,000. The statement included testaments to his character by three women who worked with him “since my support and dedication to the advancement of women in the military have been so wrongly characterized.”

The Washingtonian article has followed Webb for years, including at his confirmation hearing to be Navy secretary in 1987. Webb said that women should not be placed in combat roles but that he would not attempt to again bar women from the academy.

Women at the academy protested his appointment afterward, decorating trees on campus with female underwear the morning he was sworn in. Webb joked about it during a speech at the academy later that year, saying that the women must have “freed themselves of those ornaments of past repression” because of their “delight at my appointment.”

In 1997, Naval Academy professor Paul E. Roush launched a broadside against Webb’s writings. He argued in Proceedings, the professional journal of the of the U.S. Naval Institute, that Webb’s article was the single biggest cause of degradation of women at the academy.

In 2006, the article surfaced again during Webb’s Senate race against former Virginia governor George Allen (R-Va.). Several female academy graduates appeared at an Allen campaign event highlighting some of the most pointed parts of the “Women Can’t Fight” article, and the Webb campaign issued an apology similar to the one released by the alumni association this week.

Senate race between Webb and Allen goes negative on 1979 essay

The selection board for the distinguished graduate awards was led by retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, who graduated from the academy the same year as Webb, and included eight other members, including Naval Academy graduate and Basketball Hall of Fame member David Robinson. Lawrence said she has served on the selection committee before, but no female alumna has ever been named a distinguished graduate and no woman was a part of this year’s selection panel.

Mary “Missy” Cummings, who graduated from the academy in 1988 and went on to become one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots, said she was not opposed to Webb receiving the award but believes it would have made sense to name a female recipient first. Lawrence, she said, would be a “no-brainer” for the award.

“They basically just alienated a good chunk of their alumni base,” said Cummings, who teaches robotics at Duke University.

Some men have said they also are opposed to Webb receiving the award, though others believe he was being unfairly targeted.

“He’s a man that I admire,” said Greg Stenstrom, who graduated in 1983 and became surface warfare officer. “I look at it and say that if he isn’t a distinguished graduate, who is? When he made those statements, it was a different time, and he fought in a different war.”

Ward Carroll, who graduated from the academy in 1982 and later returned to teach, said before Webb’s announcement that he believes he deserves the award. But Carroll added that there is no doubt Webb’s article was divisive. It came out “exactly at the wrong time” for female students at the academy, considering administrators were still figuring out how best to integrate women, Carroll said.

“That article, you can’t diminish the impact it had,” he said. “It was definitely something that was discussed and thought over, and those were hard days.”

The other distinguished graduates named this year are Milledge A. “Mitch” Hart, who helped found Home Depot, and three retired senior officers: Adm. Eric T. Olson, who commanded U.S. Special Operations Command; Adm. Harry D. Train II, a supreme allied commander for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; and Vice Adm. Cutler Dawson, who is now chief executive of Navy Federal Credit Union.

This story was originally published at 4:57 p.m. and updated to reflect Webb declining the award.