Tailhook: The Story Reaches a Conclusion


Washington.--Scene: The third floor of the Las Vegas Hilton, Sept. 7, 1991. The corridor is flanked by pawing, grasping Navy and Marine aviators engaged in one pursuit -- grabbing female officers wherever they can get hold of them as they run "the gantlet;" in hospitality suites, X-rated movies flicker; in another room, women are having their legs shaved by men; a stripper is performing somewhere. Elsewhere prostitutes are plying their trade.


Scene: The fourth floor of the Pentagon, Feb. 15, 1994. An admiral enters his office, which is heavy with the memorabilia of a distinguished military career; photos with President George Bush, President Clinton, and with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; an oil painting of nuclear submarine 675, the USS Bluefish, which he commanded; a brass clock and ship's bell from the Navy League of the United States; a framed invitation from the ordinary seamen of the USS Arleigh Burke for him to come see their destroyer commissioned in Norfolk, Va.; another photograph with his two sons, all three of them in the summer whites and black-and-gold epaulets of the Navy officer.


There you have the beginning and the end of the Tailhook scandal, a chapter that started as high jinks in Las Vegas and ended in the chief of naval operations, Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, the Navy's top admiral, seeking early retirement in Washington last week to try to put it all behind him and the service.

In naval terminology, Tailhook occurred on Admiral Kelso's watch. And in naval tradition, he finally took responsibility for it. He consistently denied any personal culpability, although he was at the bawdy convention by his own account for one evening. Others recalled seeing him there on two nights. He did not see any of the lewd goings-on, he said, nor did he try to cover up his involvement by manipulating the investigative process, although a military judge suggested that he did both.

Before announcing his early retirement, he elicited from the secretaries of Defense and the Navy public statements attesting to his honor and integrity, both of which were severely impugned the judge's report issued earlier this month on the incident and the investigation.

That report made it clear that, long before 1991, the annual convention of the Tailhook Association had established a "notorious social reputation" for what the judge, Capt. William T. Vest Jr., called "wild partying, heavy drinking and lewd behavior," particularly by young officers. (The Tailhook Association's name comes from the hydraulic hook mechanism used to bring aircraft to a halt while landing on the decks of aircraft carriers. The association's annual conventions, which were officially sanctioned by the Navy until the scandal broke, were designed to give Navy and Marine aviators, active, reserve and retired, a chance to debate issues and developments that concerned them, while having a good time on the side.)

So what was the Navy's top admiral doing at an event where 83 women, including Navy and Marine personnel, civilians and spouses, were assaulted over three days, 53 of them while running the third-floor "gantlet" on a single night? Ironically, Admiral Kelso was at the convention to deliver a talk on the opportunities for women in the Navy. Also present was then Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III, who later was forced to resign.

A central issue in the aftermath of the scandal was why the Navy's top brass did nothing to prevent the well-known bawdiness beforehand and too little to prosecute the perpetrators afterward.

Such was the lack of leadership that the current Navy secretary, John H. Dalton, tried to get Admiral Kelso's resignation last year. He failed when Les Aspin, then the defense secretary, backed the admiral.

Admiral Kelso's fate was finally sealed by Captain Vest's judgment, imputing complicity and cover-up to the admiral. Although the admiral disputed the judge's findings, he could not escape that fact that, in his own words, he had become the "lightning rod" for Tailhook, a scandal that kept striking both him and the Navy.

In announcing his early departure, Admiral Kelso himself lamented: "I greatly regret that I did not have the foresight to be able to see that Tailhook would occur. In hindsight, I clearly can see that.

"We need to work harder to be able to understand the changes that are taking place around us and to deal with them at an earlier time than to let us get into a case like Tailhook, where we have a difficult problem."

More optimistically, he added: "I think this is the end of Tailhook."

With Admiral Kelso stepping aside and all but one of the dozens of disciplinary cases resolved -- mainly with minor administrative actions -- the decks are clear for the Navy to get on with what it does best, sailing the seven seas in defense of the nation's interests.

As it did just that last week, the first female Navy combat pilot was practicing carrier landings aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.

For Lt. Shannon Workman, the post-Tailgate period has opened an opportunity previously denied women -- to become a combat pilot.

The decision to open one of the most demanding and dangerous military challenges to Navy women was endorsed by Admiral Kelso last year, when the exclusion on women serving in combat positions was lifted under the annual defense authorization bill.

So has Tailgate produced catharsis, even redemption?

In the mind of former Navy Secretary Sean C. O'Keefe, who was appointed by President Bush to replace Mr. Garrett as Navy secretary in the summer of 1992 at the height of the scandal:

"Anything that has happened [in the Navy] in the last 2 1/2 years is related to Tailhook.

"The institutional biases and pride were shaken as a consequence of that episode, and all kinds of things became negotiable. You can take that to extreme lengths, and it would still be accurate," said Mr. O'Keefe, implying that Tailhook so rattled the service that its resistance to change of all sorts was lowered.

But has the Navy been purged of its ingrained mores of male domination? The answer, of course, is: "Not entirely." More than 20 women members of Congress believe that sexual harassment in the military is still such a problem that they signed a letter last week to Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, D-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, urging him to hold full-scale oversight hearings on the issue.

That said, it must be acknowledged that a genuine and major effort is well under way in the Navy to right the wrongs of the past, to sensitize a service steeped in maritime machismo to the modern world of equal gender opportunity.

Education in the realities and niceties of mixed-gender assignment is now mandatory for every recruit. Warnings that sexual harassment will not be tolerated resonate on land and on sea.

The Navy currently lists no fewer than 13 educational programs that address sexual harassment, ranging from a basic core value course for all entrants, through videos and books available at base libraries, to instruction for commanding officers. There is even a toll-free 800 number for victims of sexual harassment to call.

The opportunities for women, who were first allowed to have active or reserve Navy status in 1948, are wider than ever.

They can now work in 93 of the 96 occupations offered in the Navy, with the excluded jobs mainly related to submarine service. But women still represent only a minority in the service personnel, albeit a growing one.

Of 492,000 active-duty Navy personnel, 57,329 are women, representing 11.7 percent, up from 8.4 percent in 1984, and 10 percent in 1990. Of the 65,468 officers, 8,442 are women, representing 12.9 percent, up from 9.4 percent in 1984 and 10.8 percent in 1990.

Women now serve on more than 40 support ships, and this year they will be assigned for the first time to combat ships, including carriers and destroyers, in the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. Each year more ships will be opened to women sailors.

The Navy graduated its first woman pilot in 1973. Of 9,130 Navy pilots today, 181 are women, representing just under 2 percent. But of the 1,814 aviators currently in flight school, 99 are women, or more than 5 percent, suggesting progress in recruiting women pilots.

Indeed, the Navy has proven to be more responsive to change generally than the other services. Well in advance of the Pentagon's "Bottom-Up Review," which realigned the force structures for the post-Cold War period, the Navy re-assessed its own role, producing a new strategy for the use of naval power called "From The Sea."

This redirected naval strategy from fighting a major sea war against the Soviets to projecting sea-based forces into smaller, regional conflicts. Thus, the "from" in the strategy's title, rather than an "on" the sea.

The Navy was committed to integrating women before Tailhook, but how much the process was accelerated by the scandal remains an open question. Feminists will tell you Tailhook shamed the Navy into opening combat roles to women. Officials in Admiral Kelso's office deny that.

The ultimate reality, of course, is just as Kathleen de Laski, the Pentagon's spokeswoman, put it: "Tailhook will never be put to rest, in the sense we will always try to learn from the experience. The feeling here is we want to be able to remember what it has taught us."

It was a hard lesson, indeed.

Gilbert Lewthwaite, a member of the Washington Bureau of The Sun, writes about defense affairs.

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