The Navy Does the Right Thing

ELLEN GOODMAN

September 29, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- At last the military is using words that ought to make a sailor blush.

The long-awaited Pentagon report blasted the Navy for its handling of the Tailhook sexual assault scandal. It said that the men in charge were more worried about covering the Navy's tail than uncovering Tailhook.

Last week this investigation of an investigation gone awry finally forced the Navy to do the right thing. Two admirals have gone down with the ship -- Duvall Williams Jr., the head of the investigative service, and John Gordon, the Navy's top lawyer, were retired. A third was transferred out of his job and others may be sinking fast.

Acting Navy Secretary Sean O'Keefe told a press conference, ''Our senior leadership is totally committed to confronting this problem and demonstrating that sexual harassment will not be tolerated -- and those who don't get the message will be driven from our ranks.''

It appears that this giant vessel of tradition -- call it the S.S. Navy Way -- is being forced to begin to commence to start to turn around. If so, it's worth taking a moment to give credit to one woman and her whistle. Lt. Paula Coughlin.

Little more than a year ago Lieutenant Coughlin was a 30-year-old daughter of a retired naval officer, a ''navy brat'' who grew up to become a navy aviator. She still deeply believed that she was part of the service's extended family.

But on September 6, 1991, in a now familiar story, the young admiral's aide became one of some two dozen women forced down a gantlet of smiling, mauling, grabbing, drunken, abusive pilots so out of control she thought she might be gang-raped. She didn't let it go or put it behind her or blame herself.

''I've been in the Navy almost eight years,'' she would say later, ''and I've worked my ass off to be one of the guys, to be the best naval officer I can and prove that women can do whatever the job calls for. And what I got, I was treated like trash. I wasn't one of them.''

A year ago, just days before Anita Hill showed up at the Senate, Paula Coughlin filed her complaint with the Navy. Then, later, when interviews with some 1,500 men at Tailhook turned up only two names of men on the gantlet, she went public, ''putting a name and a face to this.''

To understand how hard it is to go public, you can think about the years in which Anita Hill remained silent. You can think about other women who swallow daily humiliation. You can think about the rubric that women in a man's world should take it like a man, whatever ''it'' is.

In the military especially, bonding is male. Women are left to attach themselves to this male system wherever they can, like Velcro to a concrete block. The Pentagon's report noted that during the Tailhook inquiry, Admiral Williams, the overall head of the investigation, indulged in a screaming match with a senior female Navy administrator, making ''comments to the effect that a lot of female Navy pilots are go-go dancers, topless dancers or hookers.''

Attitudes against women in the armed services go so deep that they can even poison the possibility of friendship with other women in the male world. In a poignant Washington Post story, reporter Laura Blumenfeld collected these words from some women on the USS Jason, a ship stationed off San Diego:

''I don't have a chip on my shoulder. Most of the other women do.''

''A lot of the women whine.''

''Some women are bitches.''

''There's more conflict between women and women than between women and men.''

''You joined the man's world, you gotta play the man's game.''

In that well-regulated, march-in-step world it's hard to find much support for bucking the system. It's hard to act as an individual or as a woman. Maybe you have to be treated brutally as an outsider -- ''I was not one of them'' -- before you are willing to stand alone. But Lieutenant Coughlin did that, and she made a difference.

Thursday, Acting Navy Secretary O'Keefe said, ''We get it. We know that the larger issue is a cultural problem which has allowed demeaning behavior and attitudes toward women to exist within the Navy Department.''

This is by no means the end of the Tailhook story or the end of harassment and inequality in the military. But a message has gone out in a sign language well read by the brass: It's not just women who have to measure up to the military, the military has to measure up as well. Lt. Paula Coughlin, navy brat and aviator, took on the Navy. In such curious ways, the military can teach a woman courage.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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