Tailhook: Scandal Time

They may have been officers, but they certainly weren't gentlemen. Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin, 30, saw the group of navy and Marine pilots hanging out in the third-floor corridor of the Las Vegas Hilton, but didn't think twice about heading down the hallway. Then the terror began. It was the 1991 convention of the Tailhook Association, a group of retired and active naval aviators. Coughlin, a helicopter pilot and admiral's aide, hurtled down a gantlet of groping, poking and pawing officers, who grabbed her breasts and tried to remove her panties. "Help me," she implored a pilot, who then molested her too. "It was the most frightened I've ever been in my life," Coughlin, the daughter of a retired navy aviator, told The Washington Post last week. "I thought, 'I have no control over these guys. I'm going to be gang-raped'."

Even though scores of drunken officers assaulted at least 26 women, 14 of them officers, the navy initially treated Tailhook '91 as little more than a fraternity party that got out of hand. But with Coughlin's decision to speak out last week, the scandal took on a name and a face and finally began to resonate in high places. It had already become clear that senior officers knew behavior at the convention had gotten out of bounds but did nothing to subdue the aviators, and that many of the officers had refused to cooperate after the fact with two separate navy investigations (chart). Since the spring, questions have grown about Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III's handling of the case and his whereabouts during that infamous weekend. Appalled by Coughlin's account, President Bush summoned Defense Secretary Dick Cheney for a briefing on Friday. Within hours, Garrett tendered his resignation, which Bush--himself a former navy pilot--accepted in a statement conspicuously lacking the usual note of regret.

Garrett took "full responsibility" for the navy's sloppy handling of Tailhook, but he may ultimately have company. NEWSWEEK has learned that Adm. Frank Kelso--the navy's top military leader--at one point was also near the hotel corridor where the sexual assaults allegedly occurred. Critics question whether Kelso, who has publicly professed "zero tolerance" for sexual harassment, has done enough to crack down on officers who stonewalled the Naval Investigative Service (NIS). Last week the Senate Armed Services Committee froze 4,500 promotions, retirements and changes of command; chairman Sam Nunn said the ban would come off only after the navy identified and punished the assailants. And the Pentagon ordered the navy to suspend disciplinary proceedings against 70 officers implicated in the affair lest some of the commanders trying the cases turn out to be suspects themselves.

The Tailhook Association--named after the hook that grabs planes when they land on carrier decks--has been meeting annually for more than three decades. Officially, members are there to socialize and learn about advances in aviation technology. Unofficially, in recent years, it's become animal house off the high seas. Strippers and porn films in third-floor "hospitality suites" set the mood last year; liquor flowed from the penis of a papier-mache rhinoceros, flown in from Florida aboard a military plane at the taxpayers' expense. The worst was the gantlet, present during each of the convention's three nights. A lookout near the elevator would call out, "Decks afoul" for women deemed too unattractive to attack, "Decks awash" for fair game. The NIS reports that one underage girl was shoved down the hall and partially disrobed.

Coughlin says she told both Garrett's personal assistant and her boss, Rear Adm. John Snyder, about the ordeal. She claims Snyder, the only officer thus far removed from his command, dismissed her complaint, saying, "That's what you get when you go to a hotel party with a bunch of drunk aviators." Evidently, the top brass were either deaf and mute--or turning a blind eye. The first NIS report, published in April, made no mention of Garrett's being in the vicinity of the gantlet corridor; the NIS later disclosed an interview with a Marine captain who claims he saw the navy secretary there. Garrett now acknowledges that he was on a patio adjoining the corridor on Saturday night and that he stepped into a hospitality suite to get a beer; but he has said, through a spokesman, that he saw no "inappropriate or offensive conduct." The navy says Kelso was on the same patio the night before, from 10 to 10:40. Though victims were running the nearby gantlet that night, a navy spokesman told NEWSWEEK that Kelso "did not see or hear of any misconduct or inappropriate behavior." Even by the navy's old-boy standards, the rank-closing in the Tailhook case has been striking. Garrett says he didn't learn about Coughlin's charges for several weeks. The NIS investigators, who conducted some 1,500 interviews among the conventiongoers, faced a conspiracy of silence; they didn't turn up a single aviator or senior officer who would admit that the assaults had taken place. Some officers refused to order their subordinates to be photographed for the purpose of identification. Although at least 70 officers have been implicated, not one has even been identified publicly. Kelso has so far not ordered officers to tell investigators what they know. Garrett grew so frustrated that he finally called upon the Pentagon inspector general to take over the probe.

It won't be easy changing the macho atmosphere of the navy, which has lagged behind the other services in addressing sexual harassment. Recent surveys have shown that almost two thirds of naval women have complained of harassment. (And it's not just the navy's problem: even after the navy cut all ties with Tailhook, one Marine general sent a cable to his commanders asking for nominations for the "Tailhooker of the Year" award.) Yet the seaborne service is making efforts to alter its image, if not its mind-set. Officials say that one leading candidate to replace Garrett is Barbara S. Pope, currently the assistant navy secretary for manpower and reserve affairs. With a woman at the helm, it may be a little harder for boys to be boys.

The Las Vegas Hilton hosts the 35th annual convention of the Tailhook Association for navy and Marine pilots.

The Naval Investigative Service looks into a complaint by a female aide to Rear Adm. John Snyder who says she was sexually harassed at the convention, forced through a gantlet of drunken, groping officers. Within a few weeks, the NIS uncovers several more alleged cases of abuse.

Snyder is removed from his command for his "apparent failure" to take action on his aide's complaint.

Investigation report finds 26 women were assaulted but names just two suspects from 5,000 conventioneers. It blames "closing of ranks" for hindering the inquiry.

Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett Ill broadens the probe, which so far has implicated some 70 officers in the scandal.

Lt. Paula Coughlin goes public as the admiral's aide whose complaint launched the investigation.

Garrett resigns.