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Navy changing another ship's tradition: "heads'

"Gender-neutral" commodes are more suitable than urinals, the Navy says. Critics cry "social engineering."

To the Navy, it is a way to make warships sweeter smelling and more comfortable for today's increasingly diverse crews. To the critics, it is social engineering and lamentable proof that Navy traditions are going the way of wooden ships.

The Navy has issued orders to replace urinals on the surface fleet with a "gender-neutral" commode called the "Stainless Sanitary Space System."

Within several years, 3,000 "heads," or bathrooms, are to be converted, at a projected cost of $187,000 apiece, to a new modular design that is easier to clean, cheaper to maintain and more suitable for female crew members. A single bathroom can contain several commodes.

"The goal is to make all sanitary spaces gender-neutral to facilitate changes in crew composition," said a Navy memo distributed throughout the fleet this week.

The news is spreading alarm in some quarters. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., said that he intends to launch an investigation because he fears the conversion is an example of the Clinton administration pursuing goals that could hurt military readiness.

Bartlett, a member of the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee, said that he has come to no final conclusions about the policy but "it's certainly the pattern of this administration to advance social engineering experiments on the military and to give (them) higher priority than the core function."

The Clinton administration opened most combat ships to women in 1995, and their numbers in the fleet are increasing. Yet changes in shipboard culture remain a touchy subject.

Navy officials insisted that accommodating women, who make up about 13 percent of the service, is only one goal of the new policy, which was first reported by the Washington Times.

From an engineering perspective, urinals are, in fact, an on-board disaster, said the Navy. Because of a design that uses a low water flow, urinals on ships generate more odor than standard toilets. They have a greater "over-spray" problem that corrodes flooring and walls, their piping tends to become blocked by mineral buildups and it is difficult and expensive to replace the plumbing when these problems occur, officials said.

The replacement equipment, built by a San Diego company called Corrosion Engineering Services, is made of stainless steel and built in a modular design that has no crevices or seams that are hard to clean.

Maintenance crews can come in, quickly hose down the bathroom space and finish up in about half the time they now spend cleaning conventional heads, the Navy said.

David Caskey, a spokesman for the Naval Sea Systems Command, said he knows of no objections to the changeover being raised by male sailors, nor of any pressure from 11,000 women assigned to ships to change the arrangements.

"What we hear from the fleet is more like, "Can you get this to us sooner?' " he said.