WASHINGTON -- Three years ago, the high-flying military career of Joseph W. Prueher seemed finished -- grounded by an incident during his tenure as a top official at the U.S. Naval Academy in which a female midshipman was handcuffed to a urinal.
Several Navy officers in the past few years have seen their careers tarnished or short-circuited by criticism over their handling of sexual harassment cases. But thanks to patient support from the top ranks of the Pentagon, Admiral Prueher managed to survive, even flourish.
His turnaround culminated Thursday, when the Senate confirmed him as vice chief of naval operations -- the Navy's second-highest uniformed position.
To his supporters in the Navy, the ascension of Joe Prueher (pronounced PREE-er) is vindication for an honorable and conscientious officer whose name had been unfairly tainted by the handcuffing case.
Even U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a member of the academy's governing Board of Visitors, gave her blessing to Admiral Prueher in a recent meeting, concluding that the incident had taught him a good lesson about women in the military.
But the parents of the female midshipman at the center of the incident say they are still angry that Admiral Prueher was never held accountable for the relatively lax punishments in the case. His rise, they say, is evidence that the Navy's old boy system is alive and well.
"To me, Joe Prueher is the epitome of the failure of Navy leadership," said Carolyn Dreyer, the mother of Gwen M. Dreyer, the female midshipman. "It was handled horribly. But he somehow magically escaped."
Ms. Dreyer, then a second-year midshipman, was handcuffed to a urinal in a men's restroom after a campus snowball fight in December 1989. Eight male midshipmen were punished, none severely.
Not long after the incident, Ms. Dreyer left the Naval Academy and graduated from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo in 1993. She works as an engineer for Apple Computer and plans to get married in August. She declined to be interviewed.
While some Navy people said the incident was nothing more than academy horseplay, others said it symbolized a macho campus atmosphere that sometimes left women feeling denigrated and unwelcome at the predominantly male academy.
On Capitol Hill, criticism of the Navy's handling of the case mounted. The the career of the Naval Academy superintendent, Adm. Virgil L. Hill Jr., was derailed: He received a lateral transfer after his Annapolis duty instead of the standard promotion and has left the Navy.
As commandant of midshipmen, the No. 2 officer at the academy and the one responsible for disciplining student misconduct, then-Captain Prueher was deeply involved in the Dreyer case. And, according to Ms. Dreyer's parents, he mishandled it.
Her father, Gregory F. Dreyer, himself a Naval Academy graduate, said in 1992 that when he complained about the academy's handling of the case, Captain Prueher told him to "back off" or he would release photographs taken by midshipmen that showed Ms. Dreyer smiling during the handcuffing.
Congressional staffers remembered Admiral Prueher's role and sent up red flags in 1992 when President George Bush nominated him to assume command of the Navy's 3rd Fleet, based in San Diego.
With the Tailhook scandal unfolding -- marked by charges that drunken Navy fliers had fondled and humiliated women -- sensitivity to allegations of sexual harassment was running high.
Rather than engage in a public fight in the Senate and risk losing Admiral Prueher's 1992 nomination altogether, Navy leaders withdrew his name from consideration.
Several months later, the mood on Capitol Hill had softened enough to convince Admiral Frank B. Kelso II -- then chief of naval operations -- and others that Admiral Prueher would
receive a fair hearing. He was nominated for another promotion.
The Dreyers again told congressional staffers about their unhappiness with Admiral Prueher's handling of their daughter's case. Despite their criticism, his nomination cleared the Senate.
"It was clear that he wasn't in charge at the academy at the time," said a Senate staffer familiar with Admiral Prueher's 1993 confirmation. "Other than that one case, he had a good record."
A few months later, the Senate approved a second promotion, to the three-star rank of vice admiral. In his new position, he holds the four-star rank of admiral.
To help smooth the current promotion, Admiral Prueher paid three courtesy calls: two to the senators from his home state of Tennessee and one to Senator Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and a leading voice on women's issues in Congress.
The senator had "deep concerns" about the disciplinary actions in the Dreyer case, a Mikulski aide said. Admiral Prueher said he told the senator he would have handled the Dreyer case differently today. Ms. Dreyer deserved more sympathy, the admiral said, and those responsible for the incident possibly deserved harsher punishment.
"The events that occurred at the Naval Academy had a big impact on me," he said in an interview last week. "It enforced something I think I had known before -- taking care of individuals in the system rather than letting the system run its course."
"In the light of current circumstances, we might make a different decision," he said. "We probably would have seen Midshipman Dreyer better or as a little more of a victim than we did at the time."
As for the midshipman's father, Admiral Prueher said, "I probably wasn't as considerate of him as I might have been." He denied, though, that he had told Mr. Dreyer to "back off" or that he had threatened to release the photographs.
Ms. Mikulski came away from her meeting on Admiral Prueher's side. Except for the Academy incident, his record was sterling, she maintained.
"Senator Mikulski does not oppose Admiral Prueher's nomination," said a spokeswoman, Rachel Kunzler. "She thinks that he learned a great deal from the incident at the Naval Academy. He's working hard to bring about cultural change in the Navy."
Navy Secretary John Dalton said the same thing in a statement:
"The Navy is a different and better organization than it was in 1989. Admiral Prueher has become one of our most outspoken leaders on the way all our people are perceived and treated in the fleet."
Admiral Prueher was a member, along with Mr. Dalton, of the 1964 Naval Academy class. He flew an A-6 attack jet in Vietnam and won the Distinguished Flying Cross. In the 1980s, he worked as executive assistant to the secretary of the Navy, John F. Lehman, and he served as commandant of midshipmen at the academy from early 1989 to early 1991.
Admiral Prueher will soon wrap up his assignment as commander of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea and report to the Pentagon.
"I think Joe's a fantastic choice for vice chief," said Sean O'Keefe, a former Navy secretary under Mr. Bush. "He's a sailor's sailor. They couldn't have made a better pick."
The quiet confirmation of Admiral Prueher contrasted with the Senate's bitter debate only a year ago over three high-ranking Navy men who were linked to cases of sexual harassment.
Admiral Kelso -- one of Admiral Prueher's fiercest defenders back in 1992 -- was forced to resign in the spring of 1994 as chief of naval operations for his actions regarding the Tailhook scandal.
In June, the Clinton administration withdrew the promotion of another admiral, Stanley Arthur, who had run afoul of a few senators over his handling of an unrelated sexual harassment case.
A few months later, a third admiral, Henry H. Mauz Jr., nearly found his pension slashed by senators angered over his handling of still another sexual harassment case.
"I think the protagonists on the Hill have expended enough bile," said Mr. O'Keefe, now a professor at Pennsylvania State University. "That kind of nonsense, I think, has finally run its course."
In the view of Gwen Dreyer's mother, Carolyn Dreyer, Admiral Prueher's promotions prove that the Navy is still not taking sexual harassment seriously enough.
"If Navy officers are rewarded rather than punished after incidents like this," Mrs. Dreyer said, "the Navy is never going to change."
Susan Barnes, co-president of a Denver-based advocacy group for women in the military, was critical of Congress for not thoroughly airing his career before endorsing his promotion: "My concern is the congressional record does not contain any real discussion of this issue. Until there is real consideration at the highest levels, you're not going to change the culture."