Tailhook sex scandal spurred Navy to take lead in opening jobs to women

April 23, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Although the Navy has taken a beating over the Tailhook scandal, the ordeal has provided a valuable form of shock therapy, forcing the service to take the lead in rooting out sexual harassment and opening career opportunities to women.

Top officials, who are bracing for the release today of the long-awaited report by Pentagon investigators on the rampant sexual misconduct at its 1991 Tailhook convention, say the scandal convinced them that the Navy's male-dominated culture had to change.

Already in the past year, the Navy has fully integrated the training of male and female recruits at its boot camp in Orlando, Fla.; its training curriculum has been revised to emphasize respect between men and women, and both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets have begun training larger numbers of women aboard combat ships to improve their career and promotion opportunities.

Most startling of all, the Navy is prepared to open all combat jobs aboard ships and planes to women in four years, though Pentagon officials won't let it get too far ahead of the other services.

"A lot of the changes were already evolving, but Tailhook certainly speeded it up and that's a good thing," said Barbara Spyridon Pope, who until January had been assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs. "It convinced the naysayers that there was a problem with keeping women as second-class citizens."

The other services have responded to Tailhook by cracking down on sexual harassment and making other changes both large and small.

The Marines are integrating women into some officer combat training. The Army recently offered a substitute for the loose-fitting unisex gym shorts required for physical fitness training, which some soldiers of both sexes thought were too revealing in the leg.

But the Navy, whose elite "Top Gun" pilots were at the center of the Tailhook affair, has gone much further than the other services in trying to reverse the public impression that the military tolerates, if not encourages, sexual harassment of women.

"No question, Tailhook was a watershed event, a wake-up call," a senior Navy official said.

The event that spurred the Navy into action occurred in September 1991 when about 1,500 members of the Tailhook Association, a group of active-duty and reserve naval aviators, attended their annual convention at a Las Vegas hotel.

More than two dozen women, including 14 officers and pilots, were shoved down a gantlet in a third-floor hallway by drunken Navy and Marine Corps fliers who grabbed at their clothes, breasts and buttocks.

In the report scheduled for release today, investigators from the Pentagon inspector general's office will give graphic accounts of the activities in the hall and in the hospitality suites, where the men watched pornographic movies, frolicked with strippers and streaked naked through the crowded rooms.

The report is expected to recommend that as many as 150 people be punished for their conduct at the Tailhook convention.

For the Navy, the aftershocks of the event are still reverberating throughout the service.

Since it imposed a stricter enforcement policy against sexual harassment on March 1, 1992, the Navy has discharged 28 enlisted men and seven officers, including a female lieutenant commander who sent sexually explicit letters and drawings to a subordinate male officer, personnel officials said. Another 11 cases are pending, they said.

Two admirals who supervised the Navy's own inquiry into the Tailhook affair were forced to retire last fall, and a third admiral was relieved and reassigned to another job after the inspector general found that they had suppressed the investigation to avoid negative publicity.

The scandal also claimed the job of Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III and an admiral at Patuxent Naval Air Station in southern Maryland, who failed to take prompt action on a complaint by his aide, Lt. Paula Coughlin, who was victimized at the convention.

The aide later took her complaint higher up the chain of command, setting into motion the full investigation of Tailhook.

"It has been a real trial by fire for the Navy and I think they're straightening things out, but it'll take time," Rep. Patricia A. Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat and one of the Navy's sharpest critics, said yesterday. "You're doing some serious culture cracking, and you don't do it all in a single seminar."

For years, women had every reason to believe that reporting sexual harassment would be a waste of time and that they would be branded as troublemakers, Navy officials said.

But a poll of about 10,250 active-duty personnel, taken by the Navy Personnel Research and Development Center in December, showed that 70 percent of enlisted women and 82.3 percent of female officers now believe they would get a fair hearing if they filed a complaint.

The poll results, which the Navy released this month, show that 75.9 percent of enlisted women and 93.2 percent of female officers agreed that sexual harassment is not tolerated in their units.

Besides strict discipline, top leaders have relied on a combination of new training and personnel policies and aggressive public relations to repair the Navy's sullied reputation.

Mrs. Schroeder, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, said that she has noticed in recent weeks that the Navy, Army and Marine Corps have engaged in a healthy competition to see which of them can go further to improve the status of military women.

"The Army asked me the other day to make sure I asked the chief of staff at a hearing what they've done," she said. "Can you imagine that? The Army wanting to be asked about that?

"I think all the services went into shock when they realized how far behind the rest of the culture they were. They'll just have to keep working at it."

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