January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

AS A MILITARY COLLEGE, THE CITADEL VALUES THE chain of command with an ardor that is close to religious. But last week two lowly first-year students—known, on account of their requisite close-to-the-bone haircuts, as knobs—had even the most senior officers at the historic Charleston, S.C., school snapping to attention. “I never asked for special treatment at The Citadel,” said one of the students, Kim Messer, 18, in a prepared statement. But that, she maintained, was precisely what she got: “Special treatment by way of criminal assaults, sadistic illegal hazing and disgusting incidents of sexual harassment.” All of it, she insisted, was tolerated by top brass at the school. With that stinging accusation, Messer put the match of women’s rights to the cannon of military tradition and, along with fellow first-year cadet Jeanie Mentavlos, 18, announced that she was quitting The Citadel.

If the imbroglio seemed like déjà vu all over again, that was hardly surprising. A year and a half ago, Shannon Faulkner, 22, the first woman ever to enroll at The Citadel, left school during the initiation ritual known as Hell Week. But the resignations of Messer and Mentavlos loom as a far more serious blow to the reputation of the school, given the accusations of blatant—and illegal—forms of sexual harassment, not to mention the prospect of damaging lawsuits. For Faulkner, now a student at South Carolina’s Furman University, the whole mess offers confirmation of what she had already come to believe: The Citadel, which only grudgingly opened its doors to women after a court decision, is not about to change its ways soon. “For so long, I never said a negative word about The Citadel,” she says. “But The Citadel that I believed existed does not exist.”

Their allegations, which Messer and Mentavlos first raised in December, pose troubling questions about the school’s commitment to treating women fairly. Among other things, the two contend that upperclassmen would bang on their doors at all hours of the night. Then, and at other times, including at meals, their tormentors would serenade them with a vulgar song about masturbation and would encourage other freshmen to flash obscene pictures at them. Messer and Mentavlos also maintain that male cadets waved a sex toy at them, deliberately used crude language in their presence, forced them to drink alcohol and Mountain Dew, the campus bootleg drink, and washed out their mouths with cleanser. Another time, says Mentavlos, a cadet rubbed his body against hers as she stood in line.

The two cadets say several upper-classmen put a flammable liquid, apparently nail polish remover, on their sweat suits just below their breasts and lit it, setting their clothing aflame. (It is a longstanding form of hazing for Citadel cadets to dab a small amount of the remover, which is used to polish belt buckles and other brass, on the hand of a knob and set it afire.) Mentavlos told superiors that after she beat out the flame, one of the two cadet sergeants who had staged the incident said, “Light her up again.” At one point, Mentavlos maintained, a cadet had allegedly warned her, “If I ever see you off campus, I’ll cut your heart out.”

The two women charge that after the Thanksgiving recess they were subjected to increasing petty psychological abuse. Instead of being written up for minor infractions twice a week, as they had been, they were arbitrarily written up several times a day. Then each evening upperclassmen would loudly berate them at length. To critics of The Citadel, the accusations are no revelation. “A huge part of the problem is that you have the same administration that fought tooth and nail to keep women out, and now they’re responsible for integrating it,” says Val Vojdik, a lawyer and longtime leader in the fight to integrate The Citadel. “That will just not work.”

It is far from clear, though, that Messer and Mentavlos were singled out solely because of their gender. In one of the incidents, two male freshmen were also doused with polish remover and set aflame, and historically upperclassmen have treated knobs to rituals of abuse and humiliation far surpassing anything permitted at West Point and Annapolis. (By semester break in December, 77 out of 581 knobs had already departed The Citadel.) But what apparently rankled many cadets was that back in September, Messer, who is from Clover, S.C., and whose father is a retired Army master sergeant, and Mentavlos, from Charlotte, N.C., whose father is a former Secret Service agent, were both excused from some duties, including marching or running, because they had suffered pelvic stress fractures. As Maj. Gen. Roger C. Poole, the school’s acting president, wanly puts it, “It’s human nature for cadets to resent anyone who isn’t participating.”

By all accounts, the two other female knobs—Nancy Mace, 19, of Goose Creek, S.C., and Petra Lovetinska, 18, whose parents are Czech citizens posted to that country’s embassy in Washington—have shown more than their share of gung-ho spirit and are flourishing. Mace, whose father, Emory, graduated from The Citadel and is a retired Army brigadier general, has a 3.7 average. “Nancy says, ‘If you’re going to be part of the system, you’ve got to be part of the system,’ ” says her mother, Anne.

Officials at The Citadel, which is partially funded by state and federal money, insist they are doing everything possible to stamp out harassment at the school. So far, 11 cadets have been brought up on disciplinary charges stemming from the allegations made by Messer and Mentavlos; as of last week, at least one had been suspended. (Jeanie Mentavlos’s brother Michael, 22, a senior honor student at The Citadel, also dropped out, supporting his sister, though he is only a few credits short of graduation.) “I think what happened is not an indication that the majority of people don’t want women here,” says General Poole. “I honestly believe that the vast majority of people associated with this institution want to make gender integration a success.”

Poole and other officials sound sincere. But some former and current cadets argue that sexual harassment is simply the most conspicuous aspect of a far deeper problem at The Citadel, namely the climate of fear and degradation that affects all new cadets, male and female. In that sense, says one recent Citadel graduate, the prospects for change are daunting. “The fundamental problem is that the school sees its system and its toughness as its reason for being,” he says. “So when you come in and start talking about reforming that, you’re challenging everything that they think distinguishes them from the rest of the world.”

BILL HEWITT

DON SIDER in Charleston

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