Deepening Shame

On Sept. 7, 1991, life stopped imitating art for Marie Weston and Lisa Reagan. Until then, the two Californians bought the "Top Gun" image of naval aviators: hard-drinking, maybe, but dashing and decent all the same. At the Las Vegas Hilton for a getaway weekend last fall, Weston and Reagan kept running into officers attending the annual convention of the Tailhook Association, an independent group of retired and active naval aviators. When a Marine captain offered to accompany them to a Tailhook party, the women accepted. " These people protect our country," says Reagan. " I assumed I was OK." She was wrong. According to Reagan and Weston, the captain delivered them straight into the now notorious gantlet of drunken officers lining a third-floor corridor. Several dozen men hurled the women down the hallway, all the while pawing their breasts, grabbing their crotches, drenching them with alcohol. Ten minutes later, they say, the captain deposited them at the elevator with a jaunty, "It's been a pleasure, ladies."

Party then, pay now. Tailhook (named after the hook on the plane that grabs hold of landing cables on aircraft carriers) has become the seaborne service's worst nightmare--a scandal that has toppled the secretary of the navy, tarnished the brass and badly sapped morale. In an extensive investigation, NEWSWEEK has pieced together an anatomy of the scandal, from its roots in the navy's macho culture, to the sordid events at the Las Vegas Hilton, to the slow crumbling of the aviators' code of silence. The list of victims of the Tailhook scandal has grown to at least 36 officers and civilian officials. Last week brought another bombshell: after a "bout of conscience," pilots from the Miramar naval air base near San Diego gave Defense Department investigators several rolls of film that reportedly show a 17-year-old girl stripped of her jeans and panties while running the gantlet. NEWSWEEK has learned that, armed with the photos, the DOD inspector general has begun eliciting confessions from pilots who participated in the assaults. Hundreds of aviators may face disciplinary action as a result, contributing to the service's deepening crisis of confidence.

In the nine months since Tailhook made headlines, the scandal has created a frenzy of finger-pointing and innuendo. "All the rats in the lifeboat are gnawing at each other or feeding the sharks," says one naval aviator. Some fellow officers have launched a smear campaign against Lt. Paula Coughlin, the navy helicopter pilot who became the first to lend a name and face to the scandal six weeks ago with her harrowing story of assault. Initially dismissed as an instance of boys just being boys, Tailhook is now tearing apart the very fabric of naval aviation. "It's a disaster," one senior naval aviator told NEWSWEEK. "Nobody's going to be left to fly the planes." Many fliers believe they are the victims of a Washington witch hunt that will sweep up the innocent along with the guilty--even though the innocent constitute the vast majority. Indeed, no more than 10 percent of the navy's 16,000 active-duty aviators even attended Tailhook '91. Investigators believe several hundred young men participated in the sexual attacks. They do suspect, however, that the majority of offenders were the elite top guns, who fly planes like the F-14 Tomcat and the F/A-18 Hornet.

In many ways, the Tailhook scandal was predictable in a culture that prizes edge-of-the-envelope performance and has a long tradition of port-of-call hedonism. In Vietnam, where many of today's senior officers earned their stripes, the pilots' motto was: "I don't want to die horny and sober." The young officers who gathered at the Las Vegas Hilton last year had recently come through their own war. "They were ready to celebrate just making it through Desert Storm and being alive," says one Marine aviator. But the fact that Tailhookers had been getting into mischief for years belies the gulf-war rationale. Putting naval aviators in a sin city like Las Vegas is a little like setting a match to gasoline. But even in a town where anything goes, Tailhooker habits of destruction were legendary. In the 19 years they had been meeting at the Hilton, Tailhook members demolished furniture and even a wall with a chain saw; they spilled so much beer the carpets sloshed. There was an even darker side: several Hilton employees cite, as a particularly chilling example, the time some Tailhookers dangled a prostitute from a window by her ankles. For years navy brass had winked at the shenanigans. Robert Lawson, the former editor of Hook, the Tailhook magazine, says he saw John Lehman watching a stripper perform in a hospitality suite while he was still secretary of the navy. (Lehman refused to comment.) According to a 1987 issue of Hook, Arizona Sen. John McCain showed up at a convention and "participated in the camaraderie of the third [floor]." (McCain, at the convention with his aviator son, says he saw no misconduct.) The navy did make halfhearted efforts to contain the rowdiness, appointing duty officers to watch over hospitality suites. But the officers dubbed "queens" by the Tailhookers, served mainly to keep the beer flowing.

Last year there were in effect two Tailhook conventions. On the first floor, senior naval officers gave arid talks on aviation safety, aircraft technology and military-personnel management and presented awards to outstanding pilots. But for other attendees, the real business of the convention took place two flights up. More than 20 squadrons rented hospitality suites on what the navy men dubbed the "third deck. " In some suites, pilots sedately socialized with their wives. Other aviators sat around watching war films from Desert Storm. But the viewing was racier nearby: in two rooms, aviators were showing porno flicks and there were strippers in several other suites. One of the most celebrated was the "Rhino suite," named after the mascot of a now disbanded Marine RF-4 Phantom jet squadron. A large "penis" emanating from a rhino mural dispensed Kahlua-and-cream drinks to any woman willing to stroke or kiss it.

There were plenty. Over magnet for groupies, prostitutes and lonely hearts looking for officers and gentlemen. "These weren't women off the church bus for a Sunday picnic," says one aviator who attended Tailhook '91. They came from all over the country and even abroad. Investigators have learned that one pilot visited local high schools inviting teenage girls to drop by. In the Hilton parking lot, two young women from Iowa brought their truck to a screeching halt, stripped off their clothes and changed into hot pants and tank tops before tearing into the hotel. Three women pressed their bare bottoms against an upper-story window so hard they pushed the glass out, injuring several bystanders on the patio below. Hospitality suites offering leg and "bikini" shaving didn't lack for volunteers. Officers enjoyed slapping their squadron logos on various parts of the female anatomy. They called it "zapping." Many women went down the gantlet willingly-provided it was all in good fun.

But it could and did turn nasty. Depending on who was manning the gantlet, pats on the butt became gropes and grabs. Women who didn't want to go down the gantlet were shoved against their will. At least three women were bitten, one severely. The officers carefully orchestrated the activity with an elaborate system of signals. A lookout would alert the gantlet to stand down when wives or senior officers were coming through. Lookouts at the elevator would also shout "decks afoul" for a woman deemed too unattractive to attack, "decks awash" for fair game. Suzanne Hallett, a gantlet victim at the 1990 convention, says that several men complained that she looked like a nun, dressed in a blouse and an ankle-length black chiffon skirt.

By some accounts, the gantlet at Tailhook '91 got a boost from an unlikely source--a Saturday afternoon "flag panel." In a hidebound organization like the navy, the panel was a valuable innovation: an opportunity for junior officers to question the navy's top aviation admirals and Marine Corps generals about anything on their minds, no holds barred. By and large, the panel dealt with technical matters. Then a young female aviator raised the question of allowing women to fly in combat squadrons. The men in the audience jeered and hooted. Vice Adm. Richard Dunleavy--until recently the man in charge of air warfare--nervously snickered at first and did nothing to stop the heckling. He then gave the navy's official line: the service would put women in combat units if ordered to do so by the Pentagon. Dunleavy says he didn't chastise the men in order to preserve the spirit of candor. "If you put down the kids, they stop communicating," he told NEWSWEEK. But it was obvious nobody cared about the men's demeaning treatment of their colleagues. The chief of naval operations, Adm. Frank Kelso, just sat quietly through the outbursts. "The tone for that evening was set in that symposium," said one male naval officer.

That was the atmosphere Lieutenant Coughlin stepped into later that Saturday. Coughlin, 30, had three strikes against her. She was a helicopter pilot, and thus at the bottom of the navy aviators' unofficial pecking order. She was an admiral's aide, a position that other officers consider the province of suck-ups and snobs. And she was a woman. On the second night of the convention, Coughlin headed over to the Hilton from her nearby hotel to meet friends on the third deck. She had changed into casual clothes--a denim skirt and dark blue tank top. She stepped off the elevator-- into the gantlet. Although she was wearing civvies, a blond man she didn't recognize shouted out "admiral's aide." A man grabbed her in the buttocks so hard it lifted her off the ground. She wiggled loose and wheeled around furious. " What the f- do you think you're doing?" she screamed. Other men grabbed at her breasts and buttocks, tearing at her clothes. Coughlin crouched forward and sank her teeth into a groping arm. As she tried to regain her balance, somebody reached up her skirt, grabbed her crotch and tried to strip her panties. Kicking and flailing she fell, terrified she would be raped. Nobody helped.

Finally, Coughlin broke free and ducked into a room off the corridor. She tried to catch her breath and get her wits about her. In a daze, Coughlin found her way to the patio; she went down an elevator then back up to the patio. She eventually found Lt. Mike (Trusty) Steed, an old friend of hers. "I went from being hysterical to really angry," she told NEWSWEEK. Finally, Coughlin composed herself. "Get me a drink and get me out of here," she told Steed. Steed agreed to walk in front of her, and another officer behind, to make the short distance to the elevators feel safer.

The next morning Coughlin called Rear Adm. John Snyder, her immediate boss, to arrange a breakfast meeting. On the phone, Snyder asked how she liked the third deck. "It stunk," Coughlin says she told him. " I was practically gang-banged by a bunch of f--g F/18 pilots." According to Coughlin, Snyder seemed distracted at breakfast when she described the attack, and merely told her "that's what you have to expect when you go up to the third deck with a bunch of drunk aviators."

Later that day Coughlin flew to San Diego where she was scheduled for training exercises. She still hadn't attached the label "sexual assault" to what had happened to her. But in San Diego, she had lunch with an old friend, a navy SEAL (Sea Air Land commando). She told him what happened and about the lackadaisical response she had received so far. Her friend was the first to recognize what had happened to Coughlin. He was disgusted and shook her out of her daze. "Paula, time is of the essence," the SEAL said. "You need to take care of this now. You need to make your boss understand what has happened here. Those guys need to be brought to justice."

Known among fellow officers for her toughness, Coughlin agonized over her situation. "I cried every night. I started smoking cigarettes. I didn't work out. I got fat," she says. She confronted Snyder again, but he dithered on writing a letter to lodge a formal complaint. Snyder, who refused to talk to NEWSWEEK, has disputed Coughlin's account in conversations with associates and superiors. But last November he was demoted. For many months his removal remained the navy's sole disciplinary action.

The navy's slow response was more a result of deaf ears than a calculated cover-up. Shuffled from desk to desk for almost a month, Coughlin's complaint finally grabbed the attention of Adm. Jerome Johnson, the vice chief of naval operations and the navy's No. 2 military man. Johnson immediately put the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) in charge-a move that turned out to be a mistake. To its credit, the NIS did move quickly on Coughlin's case and managed to track down at least one suspect. But in other respects, it lived up to its reputation for ineptitude. One agent was taken off the case after repeatedly propositioning Coughlin--"sweet cakes," she says he called her. Senior Pentagon aides complain the NIS substituted quantity for quality, taking a shotgun approach to interviews rather than zeroing in on the squadrons with third-deck suites.

The NIS found itself up against an uncooperative chain of command. When investigators came calling about Tailhook, the navy men quickly closed ranks; an epidemic of amnesia swept through the ranks. By the time Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III, the civilian head, and Admiral Kelso, the military chief, heard about the assaults on Coughlin and other women, the scandal was about to explode. Most galling, the information came not from their uniformed subordinates but from Gregory Vistica, a reporter writing an investigative piece for The San Diego Union. Nevertheless, Garrett, by all accounts a straight arrow, still trusted the navy to root out its own problems. Friends and critics both say he was naive. "The military side of the house let Larry go down the drain," says a senior Pentagon aide. Garrett's senior aides wanted to see several admirals lose their jobs. Eventually, the secretary realized the navy couldn't be trusted to sweep up after itself, but it was too late for him. He resigned two days after Coughlin went public with her story late in June.

The scandal is likely to claim more casualties in the weeks and months ahead. Senior Pentagon officials are privately critical of the way NIS head Rear Adm. Duvall M. Williams Jr. conducted his probe. Adm. Robert J. Kelly, head of the Pacific fleet, has also come under fire: most of the men apparently implicated serve under his command. Given the time-honored tradition calling for the captain to go down with his ship, some officers have suggested Kelso should resign; the military chief told NEWSWEEK he has no intention of stepping down. Kelso, in turn, is worried that the animosity of her colleagues will drive Coughlin out of the navy. But she says no way: " That would send the wrong signal to any woman who's ever been wronged." Tailhook itself won't be holding any conventions this year-the navy cut it loose and even the Hilton said it wouldn't welcome the aviators back. A Yuppie generation of Perrier-sipping, portfolio-managing pilots is beginning to edge aside the hard-drinking Vietnam generation. As the navy nurses a hangover from one of its worst scandals ever, it's clear the party is over at last.