The Navy Starts To Get It

September 25, 1992

With the cashiering of two top Navy admirals suspected of trying to cover up the notorious Tailhook incident, the troubled service is at last getting out the word that sexual harassment or its toleration will ruin careers. This is not the end of the harsh lesson. Still to come is the likely filing of criminal conduct charges against naval aviators who pawed and partially disrobed 26 women during a rowdy convention in Las Vegas a year ago.

The rear admirals being discharged are Duvall Williams, Jr., head of the Naval Investigative Service, and John Gordon, the Navy's judge advocate general. Both were in charge of an inquiry that was pursued so reluctantly it was later bucked up to the Pentagon inspector general's office. That office was also highly critical of Navy Undersecretary Dan Howard, who so far is hanging onto his job, and Rear Adm. George Washington Davis, the Navy's inspector general, who is to be reassigned.

The difficulty in changing the Navy's macho culture was clear in Admiral Williams' statement that "men simply do not want women in the military." He said his office didn't have a chance of getting to the bottom of the Tailhook affair.

Just why naval investigators botched their inquiry is a service-wide problem. At the Tailhook Association convention, top brass in attendance made no effort to halt catcalls as the question of combat roles for women was discussed. Later came an extended drinking session, when aviators formed a gantlet in a hotel corridor and grabbed at passing women. H. Lawrence Garrett III, then Secretary of the Navy, admitted he was nearby but has denied seeing any wrongdoing. He has since lost his job and his story is being challenged.

Some top officers have since tried to put the whole affair in a wider context. Gen. Carl Mundy Jr., Marine Corps commandant, said combat aviators have a culture of " 'drink tonight, gentlemen, because we launch at 0500 again tomorrow and all of us aren't going to come back.' " "It's a warrior spirit," he said, "a male bonding."

While the Navy now is embarked on a crusade against sexual harassment in its ranks, General Mundy's comments show that the nation has yet to resolve one of its underlying causes: combat roles for women. To the extent combat assignments are denied, women find themselves both resented for their special treatment and relegated to second-class status. There is still strong sentiment that women lack the physical readiness for hazardous or strenuous assignments, but in the end equal opportunity arguments will -- and should -- prevail. Yes, the Navy is starting to get it.

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