The Navy's disciplining of a commander who failed to respond to the sexual harassment of his female aide has won praise for sending a strong message that will reverberate throughout the fleet.
But some observers of military affairs say the Navy's decision to sever ties with the sponsor of the naval aviation seminar where the incident occurred means the loss of an important exchange between pilots and policy-makers.
"The message was very loud and very clear -- the Navy will not tolerate sexual harassment," Rep. Beverly B. Byron, a member of the House Armed Forces Committee, said yesterday.
The Navy relieved Rear Adm. Jack Snyder of his command of the Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center in Southern Maryland Monday after he failed to act promptly on a complaint that his military aide had been sexually assaulted in September at an aviation symposium in Las Vegas.
The event was sponsored by the Tailhook Association of 16,500 active and retired Navy fliers and supporters of naval aviation.
According to published reports, pilots formed a gantlet in a hotel hallway and tried to tear off the clothes of the woman, who had accompanied Snyder to the event, and grab her.
The Navy said Snyder attempted to dismiss the incident and failed to act when he learned of it through another officer.
Last week, the Navy severed relations with Tailhook.
A Tailhook official, who asked that his name be withheld, deplored the assault at the symposium, but complained that the Navy didn't wait for the results of its investigation before taking disciplinary measures.
The official said the Navy's decision to dissociate itself from Tailhook would eliminate useful professional exchanges, such as the Tailhook-sponsored dialogue between military policy-makers and Navy personnel.
Byron agrees that Tailhook has provided an important forum for military issues. Losing it is "unfortunate," she said.
Carolyn Becraft, who has written and researched issues of women in the military for Washington think tanks, said the Navy's reaction to the Tailhook incident was "appropriate. It was the only thing they could do."
The Navy discipline in this case was more drastic and would resound more forcefully throughout the fleet, Becraft said, than its handling of other incidents, such as the handcuffing of a female midshipman to a urinal at the Naval Academy in Annapolis last year.
"In this case, a young rising star admiral was relieved," she said.
The larger issue may be leadership because that is what establishes boundaries of conduct.
A commander can tell young officers "you are gentlemen and officers of the Navy and will behave as such," Becraft said. "Or you can buy them another round of beer and watch them trash the hotel."
Retired Rear Adm. Eugene J. Carroll Jr., a former Navy flier who is now deputy director of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, wants the Navy to root out sexual harassment in its ranks, but doesn't want to lose the sense of elitism that fuels high morale and performance among Navy aviators.
"If you change it too much, you're going to vitiate the whole program," Carroll said.
But the Navy seems to have "the worst record of flagrant harassment of women," he said, possibly because of how the ban on women in combat has segregated the sexes there more than in other branches of the service.
Women may now be assigned to support ships and soon will be able to fly combat missions, owing to a change in the law this year.
But because women are not assigned to combat ships, far more men still serve on most cruises that take them away from family for months at a time. Men tend to resent that, Carroll said.
The distinction is heightened among aviators at Tailhook, he said, where the sense is that "this is a gathering of the eagles, the best of the best, and you were sort of above the rules."
But in the wake of recent highly publicized incidents of sexual harassment, the Navy decided "to use a 10-pound sledgehammer" in dealing with the Tailhook incident, Carroll said. "I don't think the Navy had any choice politically."