QUANTICO, Va. -- Except for a brief encounter when she picked him out of a lineup, they met yesterday for only the second time: She the main whistle blower in the notorious Tailhook affair; he the sole Marine charged with assault in the 1991 scandal that reverberated throughout the nation's military.
Their first meeting, she alleges, occurred in a crowded Las Vegas hotel hallway, where 20 Navy and Marine airmen had set up a gantlet and were entertaining themselves by sexually attacking the women who passed through it.
The setting yesterday was a small courtroom on the Marine Corps base here, where a military investigating officer heard testimony aimed at helping him determine whether she should be believed and he should stand trial at a general court-martial.
Navy Lt. Paula A. Coughlin, 33, a helicopter pilot, described in slow, impassioned detail how she was manhandled in the gantlet. Sitting straight in ramrod, military style, she accused Marine Capt. Gregory J. Bonam of grabbing her buttocks with such force he nearly lifted her off the ground, then forcing his hands down the front of her shirt and squeezing her breasts.
She testified that when Captain Bonam released her, she turned and faced him, staring straight into his eyes. "He had his hands across his chest," she told the court, "with his chest out proud, and he smiled."
Captain Bonam, a fighter pilot now based in Meridian, Miss., also spoke directly and in short sentences. Asked repeatedly on the witness stand whether he had touched any women that night, had even seen a hallway gantlet or had detected any organized aggression toward women, he repeatedly responded, "No, I did not."
If court-martialed and convicted, he could face up to five years in prison as one of three servicemen charged with assault in the Tailhook affair, named for the annual convention of Marine and Navy fliers.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon's inspector general concluded that 140 men were involved in officer misconduct during the Tailhook convention, and that as many as 83 women had been assaulted.
But now, only three officers -- Captain Bonam and two Navy fliers -- are charged with offenses so serious they could face courts-martial. The two naval officers are awaiting investigating officers' decisions in Norfolk, Va. Other servicemen are confronting only the possibility of lesser charges, such as conduct unbecoming an officer or disobeying superiors.
But it is the Coughlin-Bonam encounter that lies at the heart of the criminal cases arising out of the Tailhook scandal. Lieutenant Coughlin was the only witness called by the prosecutor, Marine Corps Maj. Philip A. Seymour.
Lieutenant Coughlin first made the allegations that spawned the Tailhook investigation, which already has toppled the careers of several of the Navy's highest-ranking of ficers and led the services to re-examine their treatment of women.
She said she went to the Tailhook symposium in September 1991 as an aide to Rear Adm. John W. Snyder Jr.
The investigating officer, Marine Col. Stephen Mitchell, is expected to make his recommendation within about a week. It will go to Lt. Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the Tailhook convening authority for the Marines, who will decide whether to impanel a court-martial.